After most recent suicide, Penn students demand action

Beatrice Field at the Penn gathering to mark a suicide and call for action.

During a moment of silence late Wednesday afternoon on the University of Pennsylvania campus green, some of the dozens gathered there held posters that read, "You Are Not Alone," and, "This Is a Safe Space."

The campus church bell tolled six times. Then the next speaker came to the lectern to read more letters from anonymous students who had written their stories of depression and anxiety.

The event was organized by friends of Penn junior Ao "Olivia" Kong, a finance major, who was hit by a Market-Frankford Line train at the nearby 40th Street station during Monday's morning rush. The 21-year-old, a Philadelphia native, died at the scene. It was the 10th Penn student suicide in three years.

"We want to break the silence and we want to lift the stigma of mental health," student Sophie Phillips said at the close of the program.

"Outside of this gathering, we want to continue sharing these stories. Not just because we talk about hard things like depression and anxiety and suicide and mental health, but because they're also stories about hope, bravery, resiliency, and courage," said Phillips, president of Phi Gamma Nu, the business fraternity to which Kong belonged.

On Tuesday, Phillips published a petition outlining six steps the university is asked to take to address mental illness on campus, including easing the process for withdrawing from classes, requiring mental health training for residential advisers, and increasing resources for counseling services.

By Wednesday evening, the petition had garnered more than 3,500 signatures. Students commented on the petition with frustration about how the administration announced Kong's death. The email sent to Wharton School students described Kong's death as an accident, and there was no follow-up amending the statement.

"I want a public apology from [Penn president Amy] Gutmann and the administration," said Bryan Hoang, a Alpha Phi Omega member, who signed the petition. "They are not being competent in doing the job they're supposed to do and solving this problem."

Those involved in drafting the letter met with administrators to discuss the petition Wednesday.

"We were open and listened and found the students really well-meaning. They were smart and they care deeply," said Bill Alexander, the director of Penn's counseling services.

The group plans to reconvene next week.

University officials did not respond to calls. On Wednesday night, Gutmann and university provost Vincent Price sent an email outlining some of the steps the university will take in the interim.

"We are extending the hours of counseling and psychological services (CAPS) in the evenings and on weekends. We are also reaching out to other mental health experts here on campus to solicit their ideas for action," they wrote.

The email also said the university was willing to do more.

"We have also instructed our central support services, including CAPS, to inform us if they require any additional resources to meet student needs during these challenging days. We have not and will not let resources stand in the way of protecting the mental health needs of our community."

Studies indicate that a suicide at Penn, with a student body of 21,000, would typically occur about twice every three years. After two undergraduates died in the span of two weeks in early 2014, the administration created a mental-health task force made up of administrators and professionals. The task force released an eight-page report in February 2015 emphasizing a culture change on campus.

The most recent suicide before this week's was that of engineering graduate student Stephen Kyle Wilshusen. The 25-year-old died Dec. 31 in Philadelphia. He was a first-year Ph.D. student in computer science.


This story has been changed to correct the fraternity to which student Bryan Hoang belongs.