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December 13, 2019

Ministry Leaders Seek to Foster Hope, Community 

By Catherine Elvy, Staff Writer

 

In the wake of the suicide of Gregory Eells, the University of Pennsylvania’s Executive Director of Counseling and Psychological Services, local campus ministry leaders pledged to actively support students battling depression.

Christians with ties to Penn also expressed a desire to help foster a better sense of community and to emulate the hope of Christ to their collegiate peers.

“Community is a big help. Welcoming people in and being especially attentive to those who are struggling is important,” said Patrick Travers, a director with the Penn Catholic Newman Community (newman.upenn.edu). In light of eternal matters, “the good news of the Gospel and the new life that Christ invites us to is quite different from the ‘successful life’ that Penn preaches.”

 

PennCampusEells, 52, the head of the Penn department that provides counseling to students with mental health concerns, died on September 9, 2019, after jumping from the 17th floor of a Center City building on South Broad Street where he lived. Eells in January had accepted a position with Penn after a lengthy career with Cornell University and was known as an expert on resilience in mental health.

In recent years, Penn’s campus has been rocked by a series of suicides, including some high-profile ones. At least fourteen students have committed suicide since 2013, according to news reports. Given issues with anxiety and performance stresses at the university, campus ministers encouraged student believers to readily offer tangible support to their peers, but also to know their limits.

“It is hard to walk through depression with people, but in many ways, it is what we’re called to in bearing each other’s burdens,” said Theron Huff, Penn campus director and a regional trainer for Young Life. Depression, like other forms of brokenness, is a “result of sin entering the world,” said Huff, who also is a counselor. “So, we should keep that in mind as we walk with people through an incredibly difficult time if they are experiencing depression. At the end of the day, we need hope and Christ offers us fullness of hope.”


Likewise, longtime campus minister David DeHuff said Christians should offer emotional havens to troubled peers, and also use wisdom. “Learn to be a safe person that others can confide in, but know when to refer them to more capable, experienced individuals,” said DeHuff, who oversees the Faculty Commons ministries at Penn and other institutions (facultycommons.com).

 

Depression is a complex, many-faceted phenomenon. “Avoid one-dimensional solutions,” he said. “If possible, get some relevant training.” Likewise, the condition can involve physical, emotional, relational, and spiritual dimensions.

In March, Eells stepped into his role as the executive director of Penn’s Counseling and Psychological Services after fifteen years at Cornell, where he held a similar post. He also spent five years as director of the University of Southern Mississippi’s counseling center.


In addition, Eells was a former chair of the Mental Health Section of the American College Health Association and the former president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors. In a guest column for The Cornell Daily Sun in 2018, Eells noted how each suicide is a tragedy. Sadly, he took his life during National Suicide  Prevention Week. Eells’ mother told The Philadelphia Inquirer her son found the Penn job harder than anticipated and he missed immediate family members in Ithaca, New York. 


In the hours following Eells’ death, officials from Penn’s chaplaincy community spent the day with the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services team. “News hadn’t spread to the rest of campus yet, so we grieved with, held, prayed with, and listened to our friends who worked with Greg,” said University Chaplain Chaz Howard. “We lost a colleague and a friend.”Likewise, some of Penn’s faith communities “pulled together circles in the hours and days following,” said Howard, Penn ’96, PhD ’00. “I’m so blessed by how our community can come together to journey with each other.”

Leaders of campus faith communities receive training and take an active role in “doing many things to care for the mental wellness and health of our community,” Howard said.

 

A Penn student, Jackson Foltz ’20, said Eells’ passing shook the campus, but students have been encouraged by the warm embrace of their community. The student group CogWell@Penn even organized an activity for students to cover the iconic Love Statue with encouraging messages via sticky notes.


“The idea was that people walking by the statue on campus would notice that the unmistakable red of the statue had been tainted by a rainbow of Post-it Notes. As passersby saw fit, they could ‘give love’ or ‘take love,’ adopting a pay-it-forward model,” said Foltz. In addition to students, alumni also reeled at the news of Eells’ death against the backdrop of widespread performance pressures and previous campus tragedies.

 

Taylor Becker ’17 described Penn as intellectually vibrant, but rigorous. “Excellence is a core value, and students are expected to achieve it in all aspects of their lives, not only by faculty, but also by peers,” he said.

Such an environment drives students and staff to pursue perfection. Still, “faith was important to me as a student there as a way to ground myself and balance my ambition and desire to succeed with the knowledge that my faith cannot be earned and my hope is secure,” he said.

In the wilderness of campus tragedies, bewildered students can benefit from hearing Christ’s life-giving message of redemption.

“Believers on campus have the opportunity and the duty to share their faith with others who are struggling with these issues,” said Becker. “For we have a faith that provides peace in the midst of the turmoil of this world, and a Savior who promises that His yoke is easy and His burden is light."