When University of Pennsylvania Elvis Hatcher, P’16 passed away on February 4th, students did not receive an email from the university announcing his death. They did not receive an email announcing the death of Madison Holleran, P’17 over winter break or for the nine other Penn students who have lost their lives in the past three years.
The University of Pennsylvania has no public policy of student bereavement, and students have been left in the dark about what their rights are in terms of missing classes and exams due to grieving, being informed about the circumstances of their peer’s death, and holding memorial services. According to an article on 34th Street, the administration deals with each death on a case-by-case basis, meaning university president Amy Gutmann may publically comment on some deaths, but not on others. The university will hold a memorial service for a student only upon the request of the parents.
Though other Ivy League universities also do not have a public bereavement policy, Harvard, Yale, Brown, Columbia, and Dartmouth have all sent out university-wide emails announcing student deaths. The University of Pennsylvania administration has only sent out emails with mental health resources and services that are available.
The Daily Pennsylvania reported that Hatcher’s death was the fourth death in the community since the beginning of winter break. On February 3rd, “Pennsive” a Tumblr blog was launched to allow Penn students to share their personal thoughts, feelings, and stories about issues of mental health. Penn student Luckmini Liyanage P’14 came up with the idea for the blog back in October and approached Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) about making it a reality. CAPS directed her to Active Minds, a student-run group focused on improving awareness of mental health in the Penn community.
Liyanage commented, “It seems like students are responding to it and are willing to share their opinions ideas on the blog, which makes it a success since that’s what we were looking for. From talking to some of the people at CAPS, they’re happy that the blog is making a difference.”
“Pennsive” went public around two weeks after Holleran’s death and just a day before Hatcher’s death. Active Minds board member and Penn student Yuki Knapp P’16 told IvyGate, “All of Active Minds is very supportive of the blog. It’s a joint effort, but it definitely came from Lucky’s idea. We’re really glad she came to us; it’s been really helpful to a lot of people. As you can see from all the posts, we’ve been very amazed that people have been posting.” Knapp also co-headed the project to launch “Pennsive”.
A post on the website, “Why I Tried to Kill Myself at Penn” by an anonymous author, has been making the rounds in the community. The author wrote, “In my experience, studying seems to come before friendships a lot of the time…I tried to kill myself at Penn because I felt so utterly alone…I am tired of silence. I want Penn to report the number of attempted suicides at Penn per year.” Countless other Penn students took to “Pennsive” to share their own experiences of loneliness, hopelessness, and desperation for change at Penn.
In the 34th Street article, Alexandra Sternlicht revealed that many students were not allowed to take time off from classes or be excused from exams while they were grieving for a friend. Knapp agreed, “I think a lot of people feel that the administration tends to kind of wash [a student death] over, and not necessarily acknowledge it, almost sugarcoating it. A lot of students have shared that they don’t feel their professors really acknowledge it. Students who are friends of the people who passed away still have to take their midterms and tests, which they feel is very difficult.”
Liyanage continued, “I think a lot of people want more dialogue on this issue. I have heard about [student deaths] from a friend before I’ve read about them in the DP. Even then, I didn’t really know what was going on. I think the main issue is people are frustrated with the way mental health is talked about on campus, since it’s not really talked about at all.”
College houses have started to provide more support to students as a response to the most recent suicide. In an interview with The Daily Pennsylvania, President Gutmann said, “We’re a caring community and when you care, you respond in the best way you can and shore up the experts on the ground so all of our students can get all the help that they need in weathering the sadness.”
Ultimately, it seems that though the university has begun to reach out to students in a more active way, many still feel alone on the campus. Knapp expressed, “We have seen a couple posts where people are saying that the administration are doing the best that they can and appreciate that CAPS has tried to expand their hours and their staff. But I do feel like the general feeling on campus is that these deaths have not been correctly acknowledged and that the mental health environment really needs change.”