Parents of suicide victims, student leaders urge change at Penn

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The family of Arya Singh (left) has filed a lawsuit against Amazon and the University of Pennsylvania, whose campus is shown at right.

A group of student leaders and parents of recent suicide victims at the University of Pennsylvania are pressing the Ivy League school to do more to address mental health needs  – an issue that has been mounting on the campus since the high profile death of a promising scholar athlete last year.

“In the past two years, seven Penn students have died by suicide,” the group wrote in a letter to Penn President Amy Gutmann earlier this month. “Unfortunately, the university has not taken decisive action to make sure this doesn’t happen to current and future students. We need to prioritize mental wellness.”

David Cahn, 19, a sophomore in Penn’s Wharton school who sent out a press release on behalf of the group, said members will meet with Penn administrators on Friday.   “We’ve said many times that we are always open to good ideas, and that is the case here,” said Stephen J. MacCarthy, Penn’s vice president of university communications.

Penn has been under pressure to improve its mental health services since the death of Madison Holleran, who jumped from a Center City parking garage in January 2014. The university also is being sued by the mother of another former Penn student, Arya Singh, who killed herself in 2013 with cyanide she allegedly purchased through Amazon. The suit filed this summer against both the university and the online retailer accused Penn of failing to provide support to Singh.

The new group is calling itself “The Hamlett-Reed Mental Health Initiative,” after two recent suicide victims, Theodric Reed and Timothy Hamlett, both Penn students. Their mothers, Linda Douglas and Katherine Hamlett, have been the prime movers behind the group, Cahn said.  

Hamlett’s son was found in the Hudson River in June, and Reed’s son died in California in August 2014. Both of their deaths were reported on by the Daily Pennsylvanian, the student newspaper.  

Cahn said he got to know Hamlett when he was covering the story of her son for the Daily Pennsylvanian. At the end of the summer, he said, they talked and decided they needed to form a coalition and push for change. He is taking a semester off from the student newspaper to work with the coalition, he said.  

“We need practical reforms now, as opposed to subcommittee after subcommittee after subcommittee,” said Cahn, who is from New York City.  

The group is asking that every student be assigned a “mental wellness counselor” when they arrive at Penn. It also has requested “online scheduling of counseling services, with the option of anonymity, as well as the development of stated best practices and uniform policies around mental health leave.”  

“At Penn, the need is dire: a silent majority of students feel isolated, stressed and depressed,” the group wrote in the letter to Gutmann. “With the “Penn Face,” they mask their loneliness and problems.”    

A university task force on mental health formed in the aftermath of Holleran’s death used the term Penn Face to describe how some students hide their depression. Members of the Hamlett-Reed group said the task force offered only “band aid solutions.”

“In fact, after their implementation, further lives were lost,” the group wrote. “It’s time for immediate and substantive action.” 

Among those in the group are the Penn class presidents from 2016, 2017 and 2018 and the chairs of the Inter-Fraternity Council and Panhellenic Council. Neither Holleran’s parents or Singh’s mother are currently part of the group, Cahn said.

The group held a silent march through campus a week ago on National Suicide Awareness Day. After the march, the group delivered their letter to Gutmann, calling for improvements.

The group also has a petition on Change.org.

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