In the wake of the high-profile suicides of Penn students Madison Holleran and Elvis Hatcher, Philadelphia magazine has learned that a third university student had committed suicide since the end of last semester. Dean Richard James Gelles of the university’s School of Social Policy and Practice said he made no announcement through the university because he believes in the “privacy concerns of the family … and the possibility of contagion.”
While Gelles would not reveal the name of the student, he says he is revealing the suicide out of concern for student welfare.
The unnamed social policy graduate student, who committed suicide off campus over semester break, can now be added to the list of Penn students who recently committed suicide, including Holleran, a freshman who took her life on Jan. 17, and Hatcher, a sophomore who killed himself just weeks later.
“I think though that we need to be mindful of our students and their mental health,” said Gelles. “Mental health is a serious issue on every campus and Penn has a unique set of challenges. These are kids who are used to being the absolute best, and they get here and they’re surrounded, in a very competitive environment, by other kids who are accomplishing at least as much, if not more, and we need to respond to that.”
Dr. T.J. Ghose, a professor in the School of Social Policy and Practice, says he agrees with the Dean’s decision not to name the student. But says that, “as the university community responds to these suicides, the fact that there was a third student, who was one of our own, is important to acknowledge, so that can be part of the conversation.”
Suicide researchers say the data shows that suicide tends to occur in clusters, and that publicity surrounding suicides can spark further attempts by people already suffering from suicidal thoughts, particularly among the young, leading to Gelles’ fear of “contagion.”
Penn administrators responded to the deaths of Holleran and Hatcher by convening a mental health task force. That effort has fallen under criticism for failing to include students as participants.
Penn is also facing severe criticism for understaffing at CAPS, the student mental health services provider. According to a story published Wednesday in the student newspaper, the Daily Pennsylvanian, students sometimes have to wait for a month or five weeks to see a counselor.
Several students, who wished to remain anonymous because of the stigma surrounding mental health care, have made the same claims about long waits at CAPS to me.
Gelles says the issue is one of awareness — of mental health issues, throughout society, and for Penn, the particular challenge faced by its student population.
“These schools are so difficult to get into,” he says. “An A- isn’t good enough. Second violin isn’t good enough. Going to China isn’t good enough. You have to live with a native family and learn to speak Mandarin. You can’t make a mistake. And so you get here, and you’ve never made a mistake, and being the best all your life earns you a spot in the middle here. It’s tough for an 18-year-old brain to take, and I think we have to create room for experimentation, for people to not feel that they have to be perfect. That ought to be across your whole life.”
As of press time, Penn had not responded to a request for comment.
For confidential support if you are having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Learn about the warning signs of suicide at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
Follow @SteveVolk on Twitter.