Students in a peer support club at the University of Pennsylvania were looking forward to Friday. It would be their chance to tell Gregory Eells, the relatively new leader of counseling and psychological services at Penn, how their group trains students to listen and help their peers.
And Eells seemed eager for the feedback from members of CogWell, short for cognitive wellness. “I would love to meet with the students,” he told their adviser in an Aug. 27 email.
On Monday, Eells, a mental health professional who held national counseling posts and specialized in resiliency, died by suicide at the Center City apartment where he lived.
Any death can jar a college community, but the suicide of the man who oversaw programs for students designed to help prevent such acts has hit the Ivy League university hard, particularly for those who looked up to him.
“If someone at the highest level of this resource ladder doesn’t have access to the resources they need to feel safe, I really do worry for everyone else,” said Melissa Song, 20, a senior neuroscience student from Tempe, Ariz., and director of Penn Benjamins, a peer counseling organization.
Matt Tomaselli, 21, a junior from Baltimore and member of CogWell, called Eells’ death "absolutely throttling, sad, and disheartening.”
Penn’s counseling and psychological services, known as CAPS, canceled some appointments Tuesday as staff grieved. Additional clinical help from elsewhere in the university was brought in to support students, and the Penn help line remains active.
Victor Schwartz, a psychiatrist and medical director for the Jed Foundation, a New York-based suicide-prevention group aimed at college students, said he spoke Tuesday with leaders at Penn’s counseling center, and they told him they intended to resume regular operations Wednesday.
“I urged them that although it’s going to feel difficult and unnatural, that it probably will be helpful to begin to get back into routine,” he said. “At the same time, they need to take time to check in with each other.”
Most important, he said, people shouldn’t “despair of the value of getting help just because somebody in his position has died this way. Help still helps even though we can’t help everybody.”
Eells, 52, had worked at Penn only since March. He came from Cornell University, where he oversaw counseling services for about 15 years and helped that school deal with multiple suicides. He was a national figure in college student mental health, often quoted publicly, and gave a TED talk on resiliency in 2015.
“All of us will face times when our heart is broken,” Eells told the audience then. “Resilience is about what we do with that. Can we make art with those pieces?”
His resilient role model, he explained, was his youngest son, born without his right arm. “I watch him every day overcome something,” Eells said.
Eells’ mother told The Inquirer on Monday that he had been struggling with the new job and being away from his wife and three children, still back in Ithaca, N.Y.
Eells was adviser for national “postvention” guidelines for how school campuses should respond after a suicide. The guidelines include providing a stable campus community that encourages communication without sensationalizing suicide, which can make suicide seem more tangible for those who have contemplated it in the past.
He had just been elected for a two-year term as president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors, a post he held from 2007 to 2009, and was chair of the Mental Health Section of the American College Health Association in 2014.
“To lose a beloved colleague and friend to suicide amplifies everyone’s levels of shock, disbelief, and sadness,” said Barry A. Schreier, communications director for the association and director of university counseling service at the University of Iowa. “As with any death by suicide, the questions come hard and fast, questions that do not have and may never have answers.”
Schreier and mental health professionals described the challenges for counseling center directors, regularly dealing with suffering and suicide and trying to meet their own high expectations and those of students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, media, and society.
“We have lives and loved ones and responsibilities beyond the workplace,” he said. “We have our individual histories and struggles. Many days, we may feel like it’s almost too much to carry. As healers, caregivers, and campus professionals, it can be difficult to reach out and become a care-receiver.”
Penn has declined interviews on his death. In an email to students Monday, university officials extended condolences to the Eells family and said students would continue to have access to counseling. Services for Eells are planned Saturday in Ithaca.
At least 14 Penn students have died by suicide since 2013, spurring calls for the nearly 26,000-student school in West Philadelphia to improve its mental health services. The university over that time has expanded counseling center hours and reduced wait times for an appointment and last year appointed its first “chief wellness officer,” charged with improving mental well-being on the campus. In addition, the university has begun embedding counselors in some of the schools so that access is easier.
Students said they hope Eells’ death will lead to more introspection from the university community.
“I really think this could be the best time, really, for Penn and other administrators to come forward and confront this head on," said Song, of Penn Benjamins, which trains students as peer counselors and serves as a resource for students who are experiencing anxiety, overwhelmed by family issues, or need to talk. "Open this up as an issue that our campus and other campuses have had over several years. Open that conversation and say: ‘This is an issue. What do the students need? What do they want from us?’ ”
Natasha Menon, president of Penn’s student body, said wellness initiatives also must be focused on staff “so it’s the whole campus that is really being prioritized." Penn has made strides in improving campus wellness, she said.
“I am confident in the university’s ability to help support students, faculty, and staff in this time of grieving,” said Menon, 21, a senior philosophy, politics, and economics major from Scottsdale, Ariz., “and insure we will continue the work we were doing before and expand it so that something like this does not happen again.”
Lauren Drake, 21, a senior bioengineering major from Pittsburgh, said she would like to see more open conversation about suicide. The university’s email to students notifying them of Eells’ death didn’t mention suicide and students said administrators have said little since about it. The omission to her felt like a reinforcement of the stigma surrounding mental health and suicide that students and counselors have been working to reverse.
“We’re constantly being told to open up, that everyone is willing to lend an ear," said Drake, chapter coordinator of Project Lets, a mental health advocacy and support group. "But that’s the thing — we talk in these abstract terms, and when there are these concrete and heavy topics, everyone shies away.”
Tomaselli, a politics, philosophy and economics major, and other CogWell leaders said the tragedy has given them renewed strength. The group, which has 10 student leaders, trained more than 450 Penn students last year on “active listening” and recognizing signs that students may need help. They hope to train 1,000 more this year.
Most of the time, those trained help others daily with routine struggles, but at least five times last year, group members were instrumental in getting help for a severely depressed student, said Melissa Hopely Rice, CogWell program director.
“I know this community is strong,” Tomaselli said. “I hope we can rally together and that CogWell will be a leader for that.”