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Student Advocates Skeptical That UPenn Is Seriously Addressing Mental Health

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UNIVERSITY OF PENNSYLVANIA 2013
A student walks through the University of Pennsylvania campus on Dec. 16, 2013, in Philadelphia. | Photo by Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor
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Students at the University of Pennsylvania pushing for better mental health care on campus expressed skepticism that the school is moving quickly enough, following a meeting with administrators.

A group of 12 students, staff and faculty members last week released a manifesto titled the Platform of the Green Ribbon Movement, laying out a series of proposals to improve mental health care on campus. The manifesto lays out both short-term goals, including greater resources and shorter waiting times for Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) programs, and long-term measures, including university-wide efforts to lessen the stigma against getting help for mental health concerns.

Members of the group met with UPenn's Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare this week to discuss those proposals.

Three students who attended the meeting described the task force members as "receptive" to hearing their ideas. However, the task force members noted at the meeting that their role is simply to make recommendations to the president and the provost -- a lack of power that concerned the students who spoke to HuffPost.

Junior Elana Stern, a manifesto signer who attended the meeting, suggested that the task force's work is being conducted with insufficient transparency and represents a top-down approach to a problem that would be better served by a more bottom-up effort. "The fact that we can't tell you how many times it's met is indicative of the whole process," said Stern, who also chairs the student Mental Health Initiative.

The Task Force on Student Psychological Health and Welfare was established in February, following two widely publicized student suicides within weeks of each other and another that occurred last August. Since then, the task force had received criticism for not including any students or anyone from UPenn's School of Social Policy & Practice.

The university has also come under scrutiny for not revealing an additional student death that occurred off campus in December. It has still not formally acknowledged that the cause was suicide.

Stephen J. MacCarthy, vice president for university communications at UPenn, stressed that the task force is seeking "broad consultation with students and faculty across campus," such as the meeting with the Green Ribbon campaign.

"That conversation will inform the work of the committee as it carries out its charge from the president and provost," MacCarthy said Thursday.

The Green Ribbon manifesto argues that the fact that the task force won't even release recommendations until early 2015 "reflects the administration’s fundamental lack of recognition of the severity of the issue of mental health and wellness that the Penn community has been facing for a long time now."

Sophomore Derek Sexton, another manifesto signer who attended the meeting, pointed to another problem: the difficulty of representing the university's diverse communities on any one task force.

"All of these groups deal with and face different mental health challenges," said Sexton, who chairs the outreach committee for the Mental Health Initiative. "Even if we were to privilege a few on the task force, it's still not representative of the student body."

Among the manifesto's proposals are peer-to-peer training for students focusing on mental health and wellness, more outreach by resident advisers, biannual campus-wide media campaigns to overcome the stigma associated with mental health care and a minimal wait policy at CAPS. The platform was assembled based on mainly emailed responses to the UPenn Undergraduate Assembly's request for feedback.

Documents leaked to the Daily Pennsylvanian student newspaper show the average waiting time at CAPS ranges from 13 to 50 days.

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