Penn Faces and Campus Tragedies: More Notes on the Suicide Epidemic

Here’s why I didn’t want to write about Julie Scelfo’s recent article “Campus Suicide and […]

David Zahl / 7.28.15

Here’s why I didn’t want to write about Julie Scelfo’s recent article “Campus Suicide and the Pressure of Perfection” in The NY Times:

It is not because we’ve written about the phenomenon too many times already–though we have. It is because writing about it again only serves to underline how futile-seeming these kinds of reflections are. Who wants to spend an afternoon basking in despair? Or mitigating the despair by placing oneself above it all? It is deeply unpleasant.

This past year Charlottesville witnessed four undergraduate suicides, and I’m not sure I can muster the energy to cartwheel yet again over the people themselves to a set of theological truisms–no matter how comforting those truths may be. The blogosphere is at its absolute worst (and least Christian) when leveraging a tragedy for “content”. I know that’s rarely anyone’s conscious motive, but it’s a hard suspicion to shake, especially in regard to oneself. So that is my principal hesitation.

Furthermore, it could be that we do the Law of God a disservice when we conflate it with our culture’s escalating performancism–especially in such life-and-death instances. As helpful as the corollaries often are, the little-l law that these young people are articulating (below) is legitimately bad. Awful. Soul-killing.

The Law of Loving God With All Your Heart Mind And Strength, on the other hand, may be crushing, but it is not bad. It is everything that is good. I would trade the former for the latter any day of the week. If we actually believed there was a God demanding to be loved, at least we wouldn’t be the sole arbiters of meaning and worth. (“Unbelief” really is the heart of despair, and it reaches across demographics. Which is not to suggest that certain factors–like social class and technology–are benign, just that we’re in equally dangerous territory when we use these deaths to prop up social/political theories as theological ones.)

Of course, there’s also the pride involved. No one wants to be accused of being a “broken record”, particularly when it comes to this topic. The only broken record not worth throwing away is the Gospel. But there I am, spouting another deliriously pithy sentiment in the face of unbearable sorrow – forgive me!

What do we do, then, with yet another terrible report about the state of mental health on campus? I was going to ignore it, or let someone else take the ball. But then I made the mistake of actually reading what Scelfo wrote. Remaining quiet–or sweeping under the statistician’s rug–strikes me as even more despairing than the situation itself. Is there really any option besides holding up that tiny mustard seed of hope that God might penetrate–and has penetrated!–the suicidal system we’ve built for ourselves? The one we seem powerless not to perpetuate? Broken record or not, it’s all I got. Read the article.

I realize I haven’t given the world’s most enticing preface, so if I’ve put you off, a number of the quotes below speak for themselves. By way of explanation, the Ms. Holleran in question is the Penn student who made such sad headlines last year when she died after jumping off the ninth floor of a Philadelphia parking garage:

Nationally, the suicide rate among 15- to 24-year-olds has increased modestly but steadily since 2007: from 9.6 deaths per 100,000 to 11.1, in 2013 (the latest year available from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention). But a survey of college counseling centers has found that more than half their clients have severe psychological problems, an increase of 13 percent in just two years. Anxiety and depression, in that order, are now the most common mental health diagnoses among college students, according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health at Penn State

Soon after Ms. Holleran’s death, Penn formed a task force to examine mental health on campus. Its final report, issued earlier this year, encouraged the school to step up outreach efforts, expand counseling center hours, and designate a phone line so that anyone with concerns could find resources more easily. It also recognized a potentially life-threatening aspect of campus culture: Penn Face. An apothegm long used by students to describe the practice of acting happy and self-assured even when sad or stressed, Penn Face is so widely employed that it has showed up in skits performed during freshman orientation.

While the appellation is unique to Penn, the behavior is not. In 2003, Duke jolted academe with a report describing how its female students felt pressure to be “effortlessly perfect”: smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular, all without visible effort. At Stanford, it’s called the Duck Syndrome. A duck appears to glide calmly across the water, while beneath the surface it frantically, relentlessly paddles…

“Nobody wants to be the one who is struggling while everyone else is doing great,” said Kahaari Kenyatta, a Penn senior who once worked as an orientation counselor. “Despite whatever’s going on — if you’re stressed, a bit depressed, if you’re overwhelmed — you want to put up this positive front.”

Citing a “perception that one has to be perfect in every academic, cocurricular and social endeavor,” the task force report described how students feel enormous pressure that “can manifest as demoralization, alienation or conditions like anxiety or depression.”...

The primary angle for the article, by the way, is the story of Penn student Kathryn DeWitt, an undergraduate who was contemplating a similar fate when the news of Ms. Holleran’s death broke. Since DeWitt’s story is still unfolding, I wouldn’t want to rope her into any commentary, outside of the one heartbreaking quote she gave about her response to scoring in the 60s on a calculus exam:

“I had a picture of my future, and as that future deteriorated,” she said, “I stopped imagining another future.” The pain of being less than what she thought she ought to be was unbearable. The only way out, she reasoned with the twisted logic of depression, was death.

To those of us on the outside, that sounds outrageous, borderline unbelievable. It’s very easy to thumb our noses the lack of resilience. Yet no one chooses such a reaction. It is clearly indicative of a larger framework, one that warrants serious compassion.

To explain the situation, Scelfo sought out the resident authority on the subject, Julie Lythcott-Haims, the former Stanford dean whose new book has made appearance in numerous posts already, despite having only been released in June:

Eventually [Lythcott-Haims] came to view her students’ lack of self-awareness, inability to make choices and difficulty coping with setbacks as a form of “existential impotence,” a direct result of a well-meaning but misguided approach to parenting that focuses too heavily on external measures of character.

Some heavy burdens to tie up on parents perhaps–most of whom are doing the best they can negotiating subliminal imperatives–but speaking as someone (in)directly involved with one of the universities in question, also less far-fetched than I might wish to admit. We could use some mercy across the board, it would seem. Scelfo hits the meat of the article a little earlier though, a particular highlight being the gracious quote from Dr. Eells at Cornell:

The existential question “Why am I here?” is usually followed by the equally confounding “How am I doing?” In 1954, the social psychologist Leon Festinger put forward the social comparison theory, which posits that we try to determine our worth based on how we stack up against others.

In the era of social media, such comparisons take place on a screen with carefully curated depictions that don’t provide the full picture. Mobile devices escalate the comparisons from occasional to nearly constant.

Gregory T. Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell University, believes social media is a huge contributor to the misperception among students that peers aren’t also struggling. When students remark during a counseling session that everyone else on campus looks happy, he tells them: “I walk around and think, ‘That one’s gone to the hospital. That person has an eating disorder. That student just went on antidepressants.’ As a therapist, I know that nobody is as happy or as grown-up as they seem on the outside.”

Wow. Sounds very much like something a clergyperson would say.

In fact, it sounds exactly like something a clergyperson told me earlier this week as I was preparing a sermon about David and Bathsheba. I was worried that the story was too dark, that certain people might not relate if I really “went there”. She laughed in my face–in a nice way–saying I might not feel the same hesitation had I sat in on any of her counseling appointments that week. I didn’t need to soft-pedal the passage, in other words, the details of which are even crazier than I remembered.

King David, the great so-called “hero” of the Old Testament, engineers a truly despicable series of events (moral suicide, as it were), culminating in the death of both Bathsheba’s loyal husband Uriah, and the baby she conceives via her indiscretion with the King. And yet, it turns out that God is not done with either David or Bathsheba, not remotely.

After Nathan brings David to his senses–and after David presumably composes human civilization’s (supposed) first piece of introspective literature in Psalm 51–Bathsheba becomes his wife. She then proceeds to get pregnant again and have a son. This time the child, Solomon, survives. As Matthew 1 goes out of its way to tell us, this is the improbable route God’s will takes, the direct line to Christ himself. To call it counter-intuitive would be an understatement.

Come to find out, God’s purposes did not depend on David’s integrity any more than they did on Bathsheba’s virtue. In fact, if they depended on anything, it appears to have been their dismantling. This is the portrait of a world in which broken vessels are valued above perfect ones, one in which the gut-wrenching despair of Psalm 51 is met, not with a long-winded exposition of the insidiousness of cultural imperatives (or bromides about self-worth), but with the “unfailing love and great compassion” of a living God who knows who we are and does not turn his Face away.

If that sounds fanciful, well, I suppose I’m banking on the same forgiveness. Cue the broken record:


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16 responses to “Penn Faces and Campus Tragedies: More Notes on the Suicide Epidemic”

  1. Alison White says:

    How does hope live inside of despair? Life in death? There it is. I see life. Christ. Christ Jesus. He said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life.” Thank you, David, for delivering Christ, and him crucified. I see the “sun of righteousness”…rising…”with healing in its wings”. Malachi 4:2

    • Alison White says:

      But if the Priest in Charge over at Calvary St. George’s Episcopal Church reads my comment, I would just like to say that I hear: I have heard the gospel, I hear the gospel, and I need to keep hearing the gospel…I hear your sermons on your podcast, reminding us that seeing is not believing for “How will they know, unless they hear?”

      Hearing Christ crucified is my glimmer of hope when I otherwise give up.

      The Lord is good, he is perfect, he is kind, he is merciful, he is powerful, he is loving, he has “unfailing love and great compassion” as David quoted in his post. Jesus is my savior, my hero, the one I hope for and hope in. Come, Lord Jesus: Help us, save us, heal us and all for your glory. Amen.

  2. DBab says:

    A wonderful closing paragraph, and conclusion. “a living God who knows who we are and does not turn his Face away.”

  3. tricia says:

    Wow David. This should be required back to school reading for every 15 – 24 year old … and 34 year old, and 44 year old and 54 year old …. Thank you. Agree, the last paragraph is killer.

  4. William says:

    “the “unfailing love and great compassion” of a living God who knows who we are and does not turn his Face away.” What a magnificent way to end a terrific piece!

  5. Molly says:

    Wish this would run in the NYTimes. Question, though, unrelated to the point. You call into question Bathsheba’s discretion and virtue. I’ve always seen her as every bit as much a victim as Uriah. As a woman, did she have a choice when summoned by the king? Or is David guilty of rape as well as murder and infidelity?

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