Talking and Listening
I’m both impressed with and grateful to the students who participated in associate editor Dave Zeitlin C’03’s cover story for this issue, “Wellness Warriors.” I’m grateful for their openness and honesty in talking here and in other forums about their own struggles with the perennial stresses of college life and young adulthood and the particular issues of navigating that stage in the midst of an ongoing once-in-a-century health crisis. And I’m impressed—and also a bit awed—by their thoughtfulness in articulating those challenges and their dedication to helping other students survive and thrive and share their own experiences without fear of any lingering stigma around mental health.
As Dave’s story lays out, a tragic series of suicides from 2013 to 2017—in which 14 Penn students took their own lives—was the spark for an outpouring of student interest and involvement in peer-to-peer counseling organizations, along with a revitalized and expanded administrative response to mental health. New and existing student groups with a range of approaches mobilized to serve a variety of audiences; hours and staff were added in the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) office; and a campus-wide wellness initiative was launched encompassing students, staff, and faculty.
The biological and psychological factors affecting suicide and severe mental illness are complex and in many ways have an unpredictable relationship to things like academic and social pressures, and the students in Dave’s story are very clear on the fact that their efforts are part of a broad spectrum of services aimed to help students. But having someone to talk to, and knowing that others are facing their own challenges—including plenty of people who outwardly appear to be mastering the whole college experience effortlessly—has an enormous value. And that goal of acceptance about feeling bad and needing help is a big part of what these groups are about.
(In fact, in addition to grateful and impressed, I’m also a little envious. Or not exactly that—but although it’s been many years now, I can still remember times of loneliness and dejection, the sense of coming up short at some fundamental level compared to others at getting the most out of college life, and never once considering sharing those thoughts with anyone else.)
It comes up in a few contexts in frequent contributor JoAnn Greco’s article, “In Nursing We Trust,” that no worker in healthcare has a closer relationship with patients than do nurses, who spend more time with them than anyone else. That’s been true since the early days of nursing, often symbolized (including in our illustration for the story) by the image of Florence Nightingale. But while that element—what Nursing School Dean Antonia Villarruel GNu’82 calls the “heart” of nursing—continues to be an essential component, the possibilities for the profession and the available career paths open to nurses have expanded in a variety of ways beyond the bedside. (There was also more to Florence Nightingale than a caring presence, which the article considers in passing.)
The initial impetus for this story was the WHO’s designation of 2020 as the Year of the Nurse and Midwife. Nightingale’s 200th birthday was the motivating factor for that timing; that the year should coincide with the COVID-19 health crisis played havoc with some of the planning to mark the occasion, but was grimly appropriate in emphasizing the centrality of the profession.
Penn Nursing has an outsize impact in its field, rated the top nursing school internationally and securing the most in NIH grant funding for several years running. JoAnn spoke with Dean Villarruel, former dean Claire Fagin Hon’94, and nursing graduates pursuing a range of careers at Penn and elsewhere to assess how the profession has been dealing with the pandemic and what the future of nursing looks like.
We’re coming close to full circle in the round of annual events affected by the novel coronavirus. This year’s Homecoming Weekend was the latest ritual that had to be rethought in light of it. And while (again) there’s nothing like being on Penn’s campus, the all-virtual Homecoming@Home, spread over six days from November 9 to 14, offered a wide-ranging showcase for alumni joining in from around the globe. In “Heard at Homecoming,” we’ve pulled exchanges from just a few of the panel discussions. Complete versions of those, and all the (20 or so!) presentations offered can be found at the Alumni tab on Penn’s home page.
—John Prendergast C’80