EngagePerspectivesHow Perceptions of Support Network Impacts Emotional, Physical and Social Wellbeing of College Students
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How Perceptions of Support Network Impacts Emotional, Physical and Social Wellbeing of College Students

In this special episode of the The PARK Podcast, Steven-John Kounoupis and Venus Tian of the Icarus Research Group weave together academic research and first-account interviews to deliver a multi-dimensional conversation on social isolation and mental health. The discussion focuses on the nature of social isolation and social networks in college, sharing diverse perspective on how socialization impacts health and how social wellness impacts our ability to have strong connections with others.

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Excerpts from edited transcript.

Steven: Welcome to the PARK podcast, where dialogue across difference is vital to community wellness. My name is Steven.

Venus: And my name is Venus. We would like to thank your usual host, Dr. Lia Howard and everyone at SNF Paideia for inviting us to host this pilot episode.

Steven: We are both students at the University of Pennsylvania, here on behalf of the Icarus Research Group. Icarus is a student-run faculty-guided organization that promotes student mental health and wellness through interdisciplinary dialogue and collaboration on its most pressing issues.

Venus: Today, our discussion involves a dive into the nature of social isolation and social networks in college. Our goal is to share diverse perspectives on how our socialization impacts our health, and in turn, how our health impacts our ability to socialize.

Steven: To begin, we will explore how different fields approach the topics of socialization and isolation, and why building a positive social network is crucial for mental health. We will then move on to a discussion of social isolation at Penn, and how different wellness initiatives on campus are working to encourage more positive social interaction. Throughout our conversation, we’ll be comparing some different philosophies on what constitutes a positive social experience.

Venus: We look forward to sitting down and speaking with all of our wonderful guests today. It is our pleasure to introduce our first guest, Dr. Jason Schnittker. Dr. Schnittker is a Professor of Sociology who specializes in the relevance of social factors to health, particularly mental health. Recently, his work has focused on how genes and environment interact to shape psychological well-being.

Steven: Dr. Schnittker, thank you so much for being here.

Dr. Schnittker: Thank you.

Steven: As we at Icarus have begun to research social isolation and loneliness, one thing that has become incredibly clear from the start is that these issues are absolutely crucial to any person’s long-term health. Neuroscience research done by Penn’s own Dr. Platt suggests that those with larger healthier social networks could actually live longer on average than those with poor social networks, due to factors such as better immune system functioning, lower susceptibility to inflammation, and more opportunities to develop and grow brain areas within the social brain network.

Dr. Ruscio, who is director of the Boundaries of Anxiety and Depression Lab at Penn, graciously provided us with research that links loneliness and social isolation to everything from increased anxiety and poor sleep, to changes in logical functioning, that can increase the risks for conditions such as cardiovascular disease.

And yet, these terms don’t necessarily seem as easy to define as one might expect. A literature review by Heinrich and Gullone, for example, provides three different potential definitions for the true causes in nature of loneliness. So we’re curious, as someone who studies some of these issues as a sociologist, how you would go about defining something like social isolation? What are some characteristics that might define the difference between a positive or negative social network?

Dr. Schnittker: Yes, so we know a little bit about social support, which is distinct from loneliness. And we know social support has a bunch of different dimensions. Just like your relationships are complicated, there’s good aspects to it, some bad aspects to it. Social sciences have tried to unpack those different dimensions.

And so in general, you can think about it as, one possibility is the expectation of support. So I asked, how supported you are potentially by your friends? I could ask about the actual receipt of support. So did your friends do nice things to you? And I could further unpack that. I could say, if you were in trouble, would they provide you with information on what you could do? Would they provide a referral to someone they could talk to? Or would they provide direct emotional support? And all those things are relevant.

In my own research, we find, not unlike the research you cited, that social support is related to a whole bunch of different outcomes. So in some ways, it’s like exercise. It’s good for your mental health, your physical health, cardiovascular health, brain health, and so on. And we also know that a lot of the effects of social support are the possibility that you could be supported, the expectation that if something went bad, you could turn to your friends.

That seems to be particularly potent. So it’s you feel that you fit in the environment that you find yourself in. That you could use your friends if you needed it. And part of the issue there is we know just observationally, when you turn to your friends and actually need support, it’s often because you’re in poor mental health.

So just from a social science perspective, it’s hard to infer and find the positive effects of social support when people are turning to their friends precisely when they need it the most. But in general, the most potent aspect of it is the expectation that your friends are going to be supportive if you need it. And that has very powerful effects on your mental and physical health.

Venus: You’ve talked about this a little bit in your response, but we also wanted to specifically ask you, many theories in the field of psychology uphold positive relationships as crucial to human flourishing, from developmental theories centered around the importance of healthy social development, to evolutionary theories that humans are biologically hardwired to crave connection.

Conversely, psychologists have found that loneliness causes people to feel more vulnerable and apprehensive in social situations, fueling a negative feedback cycle that leads to deeper isolation, as well as poorer health outcomes. Keeping this psychological perspective in mind, how do their findings relate to findings from your field on the impacts of social connection versus social isolation?

Dr. Schnittker: I think it’s absolutely all of a piece. Part of what I was getting at there is that sometimes people can feel isolated, even when they find themselves in an environment where there’s lots of potential people who could support them. So I think one of the interesting things about college students, in particular, is you’re in an environment where, at least in principle, there’s a lot of friends. There’s a lot of other people your age with your interests on Penn’s campus, for example.

So we know that that doesn’t necessarily translate into high levels of support. The concept of loneliness in my reading is, it’s not a pure function of the number of friends you have. It’s not a pure function of the kind of embeddedness in a social network. So it’s a kind of a concept of its own.

Sociological theory, just like psychological theory, would argue that if not for evolutionary reasons, for all sorts of other reasons that we’re really primed to seek other people. To evolve as a species, we have to do this together in groups. And so there’s real evolutionary incentive to maintain good social relationships.

And so when those are absent, people feel it. And it can undermine their mental health. So I think psychology and sociology are consistent in that view, that it’s very critical for your mental health and. Virtually all the evidence lines up with that fact. Over and over again, they find that good social support is related to lower depression, lower anxiety. All the psychological outcomes that we focus on in sociology consistently find that relationship. So it’s a very powerful effect.

Venus: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. And I think we definitely see that in our own lives as college students, that it’s not just the number of relationships that is important, but also, even more so, the quality of those relationships, and our own perceptions of them, and the expectations that we feel we can have of them.

Steven: Touching on the idea that this issue is a lot deeper than just the number of relationships that one might have, we at Icarus have spent the past year talking with educators and mental health advocates across Pennsylvania and New Jersey to try and learn how to, among other things, tackle the issues of social isolation and loneliness for students.

At the high school level, we have seen the devastating impact social stigma and peer pressures to conform can have on a student’s willingness to reach out to their peers in practically any setting, not least of all in wellness programs. At the college level, our work volunteering with mental health and wellness groups at Penn have exposed us to cultural issues such as Penn Face, which describes a social pressure to internalize all of one’s negative feelings and life stresses so as to not look weaker or less suited than the students around you, who on the surface seem to be handling things easier.

Some in psychology, as Venus touched upon, would summarize this by saying, it’s a sort of negative feedback loop from one sociocultural environment that can encourage isolation and worsen the symptoms of mental disorders or poor social behaviors, which can subsequently elicit more negative external feedback in a sort of loop.

What we were curious to ask you is if there’s any specifically impactful social factors you’ve seen today, either in research that you’ve done, or just out in the world, that you might a feels especially important to highlight? Anything that is sort of specifically impactful on preventing some of these more positive social networks from happening?

Dr. Schnittker: Well, I think you touched on a big one. I guess I would say the world that we find ourselves in, the University of Pennsylvania, the Penn Face that you’re talking about. I suspect it’s found on other campuses as well, though it is remarkable how prominent it is on Penn’s campus.

So last semester I taught two classes, one on anxiety and one on mental health more generally. And I would occasionally bring that topic up in one way or another. And it absolutely resonates with students. They know exactly what that is, and they experience it themselves.

What I would draw from that is I would say on college campuses, and high school campuses, as you mentioned, there is still a stigma surrounding mental illness. There’s still a stigma surrounding feeling weak and reporting that to other people. And I would just say that stigma is pervasive across the culture.

Although younger people have more tolerant views than earlier cohorts, and things have changed a little bit over time, one thing that sociologists have found is that the stigma of mental illness just isn’t going away. And part of it is premised on the idea that people still see it as a weakness, as it’s not really an illness. We accept that it’s genetic. But depression is something you should get over. Anxiety is born by the fact that you’re on a campus and you have to perform. So anxiety is natural. It could never be an illness.

And I think students have those ideas in mind. And so that when they’re in trouble, when they have distress, anxiety, depression, they don’t seek professional help as much as they should, and they don’t talk to their friends as much as they should. So they’re really not getting the benefits of social support that you might find in other contexts.

So I think the stigma surrounding mental illness is still to this day an enormous barrier to improving the situation. We don’t like to talk about it. We still think about it quite frequently as a personal weakness, and not an illness. And there’s, increasingly, in fact, there’s evidence that people associate mental illness, if not necessarily depression or anxiety, with violence. And that association has gotten stronger.

So there’s a fear surrounding some psychiatric disorders that just absolutely hasn’t gone away. And I think that too is one of the headwinds against further improvements in mental health care in the United States.

Steven: Just out of personal curiosity, on that note about fear and violence for some of these conditions, a particularly sensitive topic, but how do you think some of the recent tragedies that we’ve seen in the US as of late– there’s a lot of talk about attributing them to mental illness, which in some cases may or may not be true. But do you worry that that might be helping to perpetuate that type of stigma?

Dr. Schnittker: Yeah, I worry, certainly. And there’s evidence that the way we frame these things in the media matters for how people receive mental illness. There’s evidence that the kind of aligning of violent acts with mental illness, if anything, that theme has gotten more prominent over time. And the facts of the matter are that those who suffer from depression and anxiety, the most common psychiatric disorders, they’re not a threat. This is not really something we should worry about violence from these folks.

But it is certainly part of the stigma, the stereotype, the prejudice that people have surrounding mental illness, the worry they have about encountering somebody who has a psychiatric disorder. So a lot of evidence shows that that’s the foundation for stigma surrounding mental illness in 2022. So it’s certainly an issue.

Venus: Thank you so much for bringing up the issue of stigma, because it really is the number one issue in mental health work. And it’s just such a shame that despite, or in some ways because of the increasing medicalization of mental health and this growing embrace of biomedical ideas about mental illness, that this stigma is still continuing. And even growing.

So I think it’s very revealing that so far, a lot of findings in sociology have proven very consistent with some of these findings on social connection and social isolation in psychology, and that just shows how powerful these concepts are. The next question we want to ask you is, again, about the factors behind social isolation.

So psychologists are still debating the exact causes of loneliness. For instance, the social needs perspective suggests that loneliness stems from a lack of necessary childhood relationships, whereas the cognitive discrepancy approach holds that it is rooted in negative perceptions of our relationships.

Drawing from both of these perspectives, the interactionist approach maintains that social isolation is the product of interacting personal, cultural, and situational factors. With that said, we want to know your perspective. As a sociologist, why does social isolation happen, and what factors can contribute to a person becoming socially isolated?

Dr. Schnittker: Yeah, you got a distinction I think that I see in the disciplines. And one concept that I would add to the list is attachment style, so that people have different models for how to interact with other people. And some people are constitutionally more anxious, and it develops early on in life, and they maintain that style throughout much of their life. And it sort of taints and shapes how they view other people in their relationships.

And I find that evidence quite persuasive. So you can think about your social support as born of two things. The people who are in front of you that are interacting with you, these other folks, and then the sort of psychology that you bring to it. And I think both of those things are operant.

A couple of things to note. There’s good evidence that college students are becoming more anxious over time in their social relationships, the attachment style, there’s much more of an insecure style today than there was 20 or 30 years ago. And there’s different arguments for why that’s the case.

Some folks have argued that has something to do with complex families, the rise of divorce, and less stability in family arrangements. Some folks have argued that there’s more cultural influences, might have something to do with social media. So there’s debates about what is happening there. But it’s clearly the case that people are just more anxious in their attachments.

The other thing I think is going on is that, despite the many means we have to connect to other people, a lot of our connections end up being sort of superficial and quick, and short and we haven’t created a culture that encourages the fostering of high quality relationships. And sometimes, they seem a little bit more transactional. That’s a sort of deep cultural cause.

But I think it has to do with both of these things. Changes in our environment and changes in the people who are out there, the situations that we find ourselves in, change in psychology. I would say, also, that just to take this out of the context of college environment, there’s lots of folks in the United States who are socially isolated for reasons that are going to be far outside the experience of college students.

So older folks, for example, who are living alone. And some of those folks are doing fine, and they’re not lonely at all. But that’s sort of one of the structural explanations for why there’s more loneliness. They’re living alone more than they used to in the past. So I think there’s a variety of explanations. But I’m convinced that dispositionally, more recent cohorts are just more insecure in their attachments.

They worry a little bit more that these relationships aren’t going to last. They worry about the intentions and motivations of even well intentioned other people. And that compromises the quality of the relationships, if not necessarily the number of those relationships. And as you mentioned before, I think it’s the quality of the relationships that’s really the key issue for our mental health. And so that’s what’s being compromised, I would say.

Steven: Dr. Schnittker, I want to thank you so much for taking the time today to talk with us and to share your invaluable insights in this area. We’re going to move now to focus in from the more general conversation to a more specific one.

I would like to introduce our next guest, Jared Fenton. Jared is the founder and executive director of The Reflect Organization, a nonprofit that works to change campus cultures at colleges and universities across the country through programming focused on promoting authenticity, self-love, and allyship. While studying at Penn, Jared produced the first ever mixed methods research on the topic of Penn Face. Jared, thank you so much for being here.

Jared: Thanks so much for having me, SJ [Steven] and Venus. Really appreciate it. Dr. Schnittker is so nice to speak with you.

Steven: Jared, as someone who has spent such a significant amount of time dealing with all of these issues at Penn and other schools across the country, we’re curious to hear how what we talked about with Dr. Schnittker might relate to your experience on the ground trying to tackle student isolation and loneliness.

Jared: Yeah. So one thing that immediately came to mind as I was listening to your conversation with Dr. Schnittker is when you were speaking about the Penn Face. And Dr. Schnittker posited that Penn Face is not unique to Penn. And that is certainly what we found in our research.

At one West Coast institution, students reference duck syndrome, likening the experience of the student to the experience of a duck, seemingly gliding gracefully across the water, but in fact, underneath the surface, paddling furiously just to stay afloat.

At an institution in the Southern United States, students reference the undertow. For instance, if you’ve been to the beach, the lifeguard might say, watch out, there’s an undertow. Meaning that the water looks calm on the surface, but in fact underneath, there’s something dragging you down. There’s something dangerous.

And there are other different names at different schools. And so in our research, we, again, certainly found that this phenomenon of Penn Face, this phenomenon of students feeling like they have to metaphorically mask themselves, hide perceived weaknesses, and act as if everything is great, is not confined to Penn. It is, in fact, a pervasive phenomenon and a debilitating phenomenon.

Venus: Now, I think it’s so unfortunate that this is something that so many college students experience nowadays. I know I personally have experienced this feeling, that when you’re on campus everyone else seems to be OK and doing just great, and you just feel so alone that you’re the only one who is not doing as great.

And I think this mask also contributes to, as Dr. Schnittker mentioned, the more transactional nature of relationships that we are feeling these days, especially with all the focus on professional networking and things like that. Sometimes it can feel like it is so hard to find a genuine connection on college campuses.

And it is just so easy to feel that what we are trying to get out of these relationships is not really genuine human connection or emotional support, but maybe something else, something more tangible. Dr. Schnittker had a lot to say about what he has noticed on Penn’s campus and college campuses in general. We want to ask you your thoughts about what causes social isolation at Penn, and more broadly, what factors contribute to isolation in a 21st century academic environment like Penn.

Jared: Wow, thanks for the question. I think, as Dr. Schnittker referred to as well, there are a number of causes that people point to. I don’t think that there’s one specific item or reason. At the same time, something that I was reminded of as the doctor was speaking was this idea of, what can we do about it, right?

We know that there is social isolation. We know that many students feel as if they can’t be genuine. But is there something that we as people and, if we’re speaking about the college student environment specifically, that college students can do to help change this culture and help foster genuine connection? And if we foster genuine connection, if we’re able to do that, will that actually help in terms of supporting people’s mental wellness?

And so as I listened to the conversation earlier in this episode, I believe Dr. Schnittker was talking about how the expectation of having supportive individuals in your life, of having supportive friends, can be particularly potent. And that’s something that we talk about in our work at Reflect as well. And so it’s another doctor affiliated with the University of Pennsylvania, so Dr. Ken Ginsburg, who serves on our organization’s advisory board, shared with me this concept that grounds the work that we do at The Reflect Organization, called one caring person.

And the idea behind one caring person is that if you have just one person in your life– two is better than one– but if you have just one person in your life that does three things– they don’t judge you, they believe in you– and they don’t believe in you to achieve some arbitrary measure of success. They believe in you to be your best self. And they’re there for you. They’re dependable, right?

There’s that expectation, again, that they will be there, that they will support you. So I believe in you. I don’t judge you. And I’m there for you. Then that can literally help to build resilience and break cycles of adversity. That can literally change lives and help to save lives.

And so if we are able to empower each other to be there for each other, to take off those metaphorical masks of effortless perfection, like we do through our programming at The Reflect Organization, and help to foster these relationships where people are believing in each other, where people are there for each other, where people aren’t judging each other, then we can do quite a bit to help support the mental wellness, not only of college students, because this issue of social isolation does not just impact college students, it impacts us all. And we can help to shift our culture in such a way that connections are more genuine.

Steven: That actually transitions very nicely into what I wanted to ask you next, Jared. Because I know you and I have had a lot of long conversations about student mental health and wellness and our organizations respective theories about what could be done to help improve things in these areas. At Icarus, we have put a lot of focus into the idea that biological, educational, sociocultural, and legal factors are all crucial parts of any program looking to tackle student wellness, and as such, an interdisciplinary approach is absolutely necessary before developing any programming.

But when you facilitate interdisciplinary conversation about how do we actually get these ideas on the ground to students, you start to hear a thousand different ideas and theories about what the right thing to do is. You need to have more money for counselors and therapy. But no, you need to have more funding for preventative programs. But no, you need to be training the teachers with that money, to help them be able to recognize and educate on these issues.

But no, it should be the parents who need to be educated to help the kids learn how to deal with social stresses and how to navigate these social environments. I know from our time working with Reflect directly, that everything from cultural pressures, to individual insecurities, to even just lack of funding and awareness for these issues, have been obstacles to overcome for social emotional wellness programming. I know you mentioned the concept of one caring person and how crucial that is to sort of combating these issues.

I was wondering if you could talk a little bit more about some of the methods that Reflect uses to actually get that into the lives of students that have proven effective, and maybe some methods that have been used to try to tackle some of these social isolation issues that haven’t been as effective.

Jared: Sure. So Reflect partners with colleges and universities in different ways, depending on the particular institution, right? There are many similarities among institutions. There are also differences. And we want to make sure at our organization that we are a true partner of each institution, understanding the nuances that come with working within their structure, and with the students that go to that particular school.

And so at some institutions, you will, for instance, if you are a first year student, then a mandatory part of your experience is going to be biweekly reflect style conversation. Again, administratively mandated. We’re really excited about that type of partnership, and we’ve seen tremendous outcomes quite quickly.

At other institutions where we partner, we might have a bit of a different style, where our programming is still administratively supported, administratively advised, but rather than mandatory programming, we either have something like an opt in mandatory model, where once the student opts in, then it becomes mandatory, or we have a fully optional model, where different students are coming to the different programs that we run as they wish.

And again, we are evaluating, analyzing all of these different programs. We are only running programs that we can demonstrate success for, demonstrate impact for. And we are constantly tailoring these programs to make them even more effective, again, making those college and university specific adjustments based upon the unique cultures and unique structures that we find with each of our partners.

Steven: Thank you for that insight. I know that it’s a really big challenge to try and modify programs to fit the individual environments of schools. Something that we’ve really tried to prioritize in our work is the idea that mental health and wellness in general doesn’t necessarily have a catch all solution in its specifics. Perhaps in the more general ideas of how to go about things. Like one idea like you mentioned, the one caring person idea, is something that is effective for helping tackle some of those feelings of social isolation. But the reality of getting that to a community might be different in different environments and in different places. And the challenges of figuring out the logistics of how to make those modifications.

Shifting a little bit this idea of cultures on a school campus, in addition to trying to research these issues from fields such as psychology, neuroscience, and sociology, we have also been trying to start up some cultural research as well. And a concept that has been particularly interesting to us recently, as well as to some of our supporters at Paideia, is the concept of the Greek parea.

The parea is defined as a group of friends who regularly gather together to share their experiences about life, their philosophies, values, and ideas. Now, this concept has parallels in a number of other cultures as well. But the essential idea is that the social circle or friend group is defined at its core by a deep trust and sharing of feelings and burdens that helps hold the group tightly together and lessen feelings of loneliness.

This seems to me in some ways the opposite of the type of social environment something like Penn Face supposedly creates. And I know from talking with Penn students, younger relatives at other schools, and even from my own personal experience at Penn, that many times students feel that they lack anything near to those types of social bonds.

Do you feel that a value like this is absent from the current cultural climate of our schools? Or is it more achievable than some might think? And is a cultural climate that encourages something like a parea even something that most students today might want?

Jared: I do think that something like that is achievable. And I also do think that it’s something that students want. And we see that through the programming that we run on campus. So to give an example, when we first started almost five years ago our program site at Cornell University, we started that program site at the time we were only running optional programming.

And there were under 75 students or so, perhaps even under 50 students. That turned out to our first gathering, where students were speaking openly, speaking honestly, exchanging ideas about life, exchanging different philosophies. And by the end of that first semester– again, keeping in mind that this was purely optional programming that was entirely student marketed– there were hundreds of students turning out for these gatherings, for these conversations.

And we see similar phenomena occurring at the other campuses that we serve throughout the years. There is this desire to be open, to be honest, and to receive that support in return. What we like to say is that when we host Reflect-style conversations, we create somewhat of a microcosm of what campus overall could look like, if we are able to empower students to empower themselves and others to take off their metaphorical masks and to connect with each other as these authentic self loving allies.

Something that may be particularly relevant to what you shared, SJ. I believe one part of your question was, is this part of Greek culture to which you referred absent from college campuses nowadays? I would, in fact, say that, in my experience, it fortunately is not. It might not be omnipresent.

But it was actually a program named Tony Talks that was running in my fraternity at Penn, sigma phi epsilon, my first year, where I experienced brothers getting together, again, with fraternity having Greek roots, right? Getting together in the fraternity house to have conversations that were more open, that were more honest, where we were getting together and trying to support each other through what we were experiencing.

And it was those conversations in combination with the research that I was doing, in combination with classes I was taking and professors that were assisting me, that ultimately we were able to create this now national nonprofit organization that empowers students more broadly throughout campus to engage in this style of conversation. But it is, again, worth emphasizing that a key inspiration for Reflect was these conversations that were going on in my fraternity house, again, with roots in Greek culture.

And in fact, I will quickly add that sigma phi epsilon has been a great partner of ours since our inception, and coming up, I will actually be helping to run some programming for them in Greece, where they take undergraduates to Greece. And the programming that I specifically am going to be helping them with is with regard to some open, honest mutually supportive conversations that they will be hosting throughout the experience, as well as ongoing mentorship of the undergraduates.

So I do believe that this culture, that this type of connection still exists. And it inspires me the more and more that we can bring this style of conversation to campus more broadly.

Steven: I think it is incredibly crucial for the students that are feeling particularly isolated at Penn, or at any other schools like Penn, to hear from someone that is so involved in this fight against these issues, involved in these cultural climates, that these communities do exist, and they are there, and that there are people that have desire to share these values, and that are open to speaking with them, whoever they are. And so I really appreciate how strongly and how passionately you gave that answer and with the examples that you gave, because I think that’s incredibly important for students to hear.

Jared: One item that I would add on to the end of what you were saying there is, if anybody is listening to this podcast and thinking what would be my, Jared’s, number one takeaway, it’s that every single person has the power to be that one caring person. And I think that that in and of itself is tremendously powerful.

What I always like to share with people is I have two asks of you. Number one, engage in self care. Everybody deserves self care, period. And as we know, oftentimes people who are givers, right, end up neglecting themselves, in furtherance of giving to others. And there’s an expression that’s very common in my field, which is who tows the tow truck?

If you think about, perhaps you’ve been on an airplane, and there’s the saying, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others, right? You can’t pour from an empty cup. There are all of these different sayings that at the end of the day mean, if you are going to try to help others then you do yourself and others justice by helping yourself first, and making sure that you’re caring for yourself. And so the first part of my two-part ask is engage in self care. You deserve it.

The next part is, at the point at which, if you reach this point that you feel like you are able to be that caring person for someone else, that you’re able to not judge, that you’re able to be there for someone, that you’re able to believe in others, to be their best selves, go ahead and do it. Because we organically can help to shift culture. We organically can help to bring these allied authentic mutually supportive conversations to campus, more broadly. We each have the power to do it.

And it’s not just on campus. Again, one caring person is applicable to college students and non-college students alike. And so as we think about how do we spread this culture, who are the different stakeholders that we have to engage. What I would say is it takes collaboration among many, and we all can have a role to play. All of us can help to make a difference. All of us can help to change lives. All of us can help to save lives.

Venus: Thank you so much Jared. I think one of the best things about Reflect is how your mission is really to empower individual students to change the campus culture from the ground up. I just think that’s so powerful this message, that everybody can be that one caring person, if, of course, they make the time to take care of themselves.

Steven: Jared, we wanted to thank you so much for your time today, as well as you, Dr. Schnittker. We appreciate it very much. Jared our final question for you, if you were to summarize, briefly, what is the ultimate goal of your work on a campus like Penn? What is it that you hope to see accomplished a few years down the road?

Jared: What we like to say at Reflect is that our vision is not to have program sites at every college and university across the country, or even internationally. Rather, our vision is to have no program sites, because we are no longer necessary. We have effectively helped to empower students to drive forward the work without our involvement. The students themselves are the ones who are empowering themselves and each other to take off their metaphorical masks of effortless perfection, and be these authentic self loving allies.

Steven: Thank you both so much for your time today. I think students listening to this will greatly appreciate what you’ve both shared.

Venus: Last but certainly not least, our final guess for the episode is the lovely Emily Hunt. Emily is a junior majoring in Health and Societies in Penn’s College of Arts and Sciences. She is the President of Penn Benjamins, Penn’s undergraduate peer counseling organization, where students can go for confidential support from a trained peer. Emily, thank you so much for being here.

Emily: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Steven: Emily, in our conversation with Dr. Schnittker, he touched on the multiple dimensions he felt comprised the idea of social support, particularly highlighting the idea of expectation. He said that loneliness is not a pure function of the number of friends you have per se, but rather, of the expectation that you can count on your social circle to offer you the support you need when you need it.

Our guests have suggested that one of the reasons why students can feel so lonely, even in a place as crowded as Penn with peers, is because they feel like they just can’t expect that level of support from their peer groups. How does this align with the struggles you’ve seen students facing in your work?

Emily: I do agree with the idea that you could be around a bunch of different people. And at Penn, you’re always around people. It’s dinnertime and you’re in the dining hall, chances are you’re not sitting alone. You’re always around somebody. We could be around all these people, be in clubs, and be in class, and just have constant interaction with people. We could still feel really, really lonely, if you know or you feel like you know that you can’t rely on them.

This idea of expectation. Like when you have an expectation of somebody, that you have confidence that they’re going to follow through. Like my friends, when they say I’ll call you at 7, they call me at 7. And it’s this mutual reliability and trust that it really makes you feel secure in a relationship. And when that expectation is broken, it makes you feel like you can’t rely on somebody.

And when the expectations are not there, you know you can’t– I wouldn’t say trust. Trust seems like a very heavy word. But having the confidence that this person will be there for you, it adds a lot of security. And at Penn, I feel like although we’re surrounded by so many people, it doesn’t mean you have that security.

You’re always interacting with people, but that doesn’t mean that you feel confident that they’re going to be there for you. See, I don’t know. It’s very difficult. I feel like it’s very difficult, depending on, even your race, honestly.

Penn is a predominately white school. And a lot of people of color might feel polarized unless they too are friends with people of color. I’ve experienced it myself. The way at Locust Walk is kind of framed as emblematic of what people feel like Penn cares about.

All the cultural centers are smushed together in the basement of this building on Locust Walk, where the entire Asian community, expected to have a hub of, I don’t know, Asianness, of that familiarity of being in an Asian community. They expected to have that in this tiny room.

And then they expect the entire Black community to be able to host their events, or like meetings and stuff in that small arch building. It kind of reflects what people feel like Penn really cares about. Because the entire Locust Walk is lined up with frat houses and stuff. And it’s emblematic of the fact that frat houses have power.

And when you shove all of the minority groups in a small room in the basement, that makes them feel like they do not have that sense of power. So I guess we don’t have the expectation at Penn that we can rely on them to, I don’t know, really care about minority communities.

Steven: You’re talking about specific things at Penn that impact our ability to expect support when we feel we need it. And I think that’s important. Would you say that the culture of Penn and what is expected of us as students, do you think it discourages the building of expectation, of support, either among our social groups or of our school?

Emily: Honestly, I’m not sure if this is Penn specific, because I haven’t really experienced other college lives as much. But Penn Face is definitely real, and Penn Face is very strong.

I don’t to what extent it’s different than other schools. But I know for a fact that it’s very, very strong at Penn. Every student I’ve talked about mental health has talked about this culture of showing out, of always being good, always feeling good. Whenever anybody asks you, oh, how are you doing? You’re like, oh, I’m chilling, like life is good, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.

And people aren’t really truly honest. And when they are honest, it’s covered up by like a joke. Like ha, ha, yeah, I’m like struggling right now. But it’s just fine, like blah, blah, blah, you know what I mean? It seems like people aren’t willing to genuinely express, yeah, I’m not feeling well. I’m feeling kind of down, honestly.

If you go on LinkedIn, you see all these posts like, oh, I just got an internship here. I got an internship there. There’s a culture of success at Penn. And people abide by it so hard that they kind of lose themselves in it. And they hide how they really, really feel.

In the first place, it’s hard for people to be genuine about their feelings to their peers because there’s an expectation of success, an expectation of doing well. And then when peers are honest about how they feel, usually my first response is to listen. But also, if they’ve never been there before, I’m like, maybe you should try CAPS. But even then, at that point, you go to CAPS, and you realize that CAPS can’t really support me like that. CAPS can’t support me the way I need a friend and family member to support me. Like emotionally in that aspect.

People don’t have people that show up, it’s very difficult. So Yeah, I don’t know how similar Penn is to other schools, but Penn students are bred to believe that you are the very best of your class. You are special. So you better act up. You better live up to that, right? So a lot of Penn students feel like, if I’m not doing everything at every specific moment, then I’m not good enough. So yeah, Penn’s intense. And then when it is intense, if you admit it, the help isn’t always there. Which worsens the intensity of it.

Venus: Emily, thank you so much for bringing up so many important issues about mental health at Penn. The sadness of feeling lonely in a crowd, the systemic inequalities that make a sense of true belonging and community harder for some groups of students than others, the underfunding of mental health resources, the culture of intense ambition, and the culture of Penn Face.

That’s actually a perfect transition into the next question that we have for you. In conversations about student loneliness and mental health, Penn Face is very much a recurring topic. While our guests have told us that this phenomenon certainly exists at many other schools, it seems to resonate especially strongly with students at Penn.

Despite our growing awareness of Penn Face, the issue clearly hasn’t gone away. Our guests have suggested that one reason for this enduring problem is that we still have innate stigmas embedded in our culture that mental health struggles are a personal weakness, or something to get over, which discourages people from reaching out for the support they need. Do you find this to be a barrier in the work that you do?

Emily: So let me think about the work that I do. For one, I’m the president of Penn Benjamins. Given that, I’m in charge of essentially the peer content program at Penn. So my own peers, helping other peers mentally through talk, just sitting down and talking, just hearing each other out. I’m the president of that.

I’m in charge of the peers, what they learn, and how they use what they learn, of organizing the trainings, organizing meetings for friends to get together, right? So essentially, there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders when it comes to the mental health world at Penn.

But it’s funny, because my mental health is not that great either. Like I go to therapy. I have my own issues. But because I have this important role, and it’s very, very important to me. I would never– I wouldn’t quit, because it’s a job that I really, really like. But given that there’s so much weight on my shoulders, a lot at stake here, I feel like I can’t show that I too have poor mental health, because if I do, then I won’t be able to properly facilitate the program.

Essentially, I have to stay strong, you know, for this community of kids. Not kids. I mean, we’re all adults. But this community, you know, a lot of people. And I remember going through a lot. My sophomore year in college, I was going through a lot. Just a lot.

I had health issues. I had friend issues. And then had a close friend pass away. But yeah, I have a lot of weight on my shoulders. A lot of people rely on me, on like my organization, my leadership. And because of this desire to– not be the best. More like fulfill your ambition, which a lot of Penn students have. They have a lot of ambition. There’s a pressure to do that.

And if you show, y’all, I’m struggling right now. I’m going through it. There’s a stigma that, oh, you’re weak because of it. But nobody actually thinks that. If you go tell your friend– if your friend is going up to you and telling you, man, I’m really depressed right now. I’m not doing well in school. You would reply, damn, give yourself a break. Take care of yourself. Just take whatever you need, right?

But if you were cloned and you would go and ask yourself to that, would you respond in the same way to yourself? Like would you treat yourself like that? I think a lot of Penn kids don’t do that for themselves. They disregard their own struggles for signs of weakness. And they’re like, oh, I got to brush it off and just get to work.

Like I have a lot of friends that feel like the weight of their world is on their shoulders. Like one of my best friends at Penn, he’s a first-generation low-income student. And I won’t say the wealth of his family. I would say financial stability of his family relies on him getting a good job after college. Because he’s like the first generation in his family to go to college. So there’s that expectation that he’s going to help pay for them.

And that’s a lot of weight for the guy. And so if he is honest about the fact that he’s struggling mentally, he won’t be able to fulfill this ambition. You get what I’m trying to say? And then on my end, yeah, I have a very similar position, where there is the weight of the world.

I wouldn’t say the world. That’s being dramatic. I would say there’s a lot of weight on my shoulders to follow through. And so I hold myself to that accountability. So I have anything that drags me down. And in all honesty, a lot of things drag me down. I’m a human too. Like I go through my stuff with my family, my friends, people I love. But I can’t let that bring me down and I can’t be honest about it if I want to move on with my goals, when it comes to school and my career.

Steven: Dr. Schnittker quoted some findings which seem to show that college students these days were, on average, more insecure about their social relationships than they might have been 20 to 30 years ago. There were a number of theories as to why that might be, everything from changes in average family dynamics, social media influence, or cultural influences that encourage more superficial relationships, to name a few.

But regardless of why, he said the evidence seemed pretty clear about this trend. Do you feel that insecurity about one’s social relationships is a significant part of the problem Penn students are facing today? If so, do you have any ideas for what might be causing this trend?

Emily: Yeah, I do. I see it a lot. I have a good friend who is like, you’d look at him on the surface, and like, oh, he’s best friends. He’s best friends with X and Y. And it’s so obvious. Like they’re besties. They probably tell each other everything. They’re always hanging out.

And then I talked to him directly I’m like, oh, how do you feel about X and Y? And he’s like, I mean, they’re my friends. But I don’t know if I can trust them like that. In other words, although people perceive them as best friends, he doesn’t really feel that true security that they are best friends. The strength of their friendship is questionable, essentially.

And I don’t know. I feel like I see that a lot– and a lot of these people– I myself, like I know a lot of people I meet, I’m meeting at school, that relationship is fleeting. Like I don’t know if they’re– I don’t know if I can really, really rely on them, you know? Not that I expect them to. I guess it’s a problem that I don’t expect them to. I don’t expect that I can rely on them.

Yeah, I feel like at school, a lot of times it’s quantity over quality. People have maybe very few quality friends here, I guess. I don’t know. Maybe that’s a far reaching assumption. But yeah, I mean, I definitely see a lot of people feel insecure in their relationships.

They might have one or two people that they can feel fully secure in, but a lot of people have a lot of insecure relationships. It’s just people just know people. But the ties aren’t very strong. I don’t know. I feel like my answer to that question is kind of blurred, because I don’t really know the answer myself. Haven’t really thought about it before.

Steven: When we spoke to Jared, he spoke on the idea of one caring person as being a crucial part of Reflect’s mission. The idea of the massive impact that having just one person who will be there for you and who believes in you unconditionally can have on an individual.

And he feels that while some people may argue that our campus culture discourages the development of especially open and vulnerable social relationships, that ultimately, students are very eager and open to building these types of bonds, and building a campus culture that encourages this type of connection, that encourages people to be a one caring person is very much within reach. What are your thoughts on that?

Emily: I completely agree that it is something in reach. And I completely agree that having one person can make all the difference. It’s absolutely insane. Let me just tell you. So senior year of high school, I have a bunch of health issues, right? So I’m like, damn, I need to take a gap year. I need to recuperate. I need to heal.

That’s what I did. I’m like, let me just take a year off and just focus my self, focus on my physical and mental health and recuperate, so I feel better, so I can go back to school. So I took a year away from school. And it was like, all my friends, they go to college in different places. We all graduated 2019. They did– they go to college. Best friend’s in Boston. Other friend in California. Other friend’s in Baltimore. All over the place.

The only person I had was my girlfriend in high school. She is class of 2020. I’m class of 2019 for high school. So she stayed for another year of high school. I stayed because my gap year. So my one person my gap year was my girlfriend at the time. And just having her in my life, like it literally saved my life. I can’t even lie.

Granted, I sound completely overdependent right now on this one person. But she made my mental health incredibly better, just because I knew she would be there for me. We had that unbreakable bond. I trusted her with my life type B. Like I knew she would be there for me, no matter what.

That one person changed everything. It’s insane. And I have friends. They come to me, they’re telling me– this is at Penn. They’re like, I just wish I had one person. A significant other, a best friend, just one person I know that they’re my person. Humans just have a desire to be with somebody. Like to have a person– humans aren’t meant to be alone. You get all mentally weird when you’re alone.

And obviously, zero companions to one companion, that just– that shifts your world. Like right, now I’m dating this amazing girl. I met her at Penn. My sophomore year, we really met met like in person, like when we started talking on the first weekend when everybody was on campus. And as I mentioned before, like I had a rough sophomore year.

Like I was having problems with my friends, having problems with my health. I had a friend who passed away. So it was a lot. Like I was going through a lot. But because I met this girl and became really close friends, and then we started liking each other, and then now we’re dating. Because I had her, it was extremely helpful in just getting through all the problems I had.

And I’m not saying, oh, your girlfriend, your boyfriend is your therapist. I’m not saying like your friend is your therapist. No, because therapists are professionals, and sometimes you need professional help. And that’s a completely OK to professional help.

My point is that me having this one person, my girlfriend, and my other friend, just having that one bestie, that one bestie that, you know, hey, let’s get some lunch. I bet, I’ll be there. Just having that one person, it makes you feel so secure in so many things.

A lot of it has to do with your mental health. And I’m going to reiterate. Your significant other and your friends are not meant to be your therapists. And I’m again emphasizing the point that just having an individual person with an unconditional love and unconditional support, it makes you feel so much more security in the world than if you didn’t have that one companion.

Granted, it’s always good to have different companions in different realms of your life. But one– zero to one, huge. Now, to the point where it’s possible, and to the point that it’s increasing at Penn, that’s true as well. I see people just wanting to have people.

It’s so obvious. My friends talk about it like, oh, I just want to have a boo, or just a really good friend, you know? I see it all the time. But it’s very attainable. At Penn, life just moves fast. You’re meeting new friends constantly. You’re meeting new people constantly. It’s very possible to just come across that one person we’re like, oh, man. We vibe. We vibe and we trust each other.

Like it happens. And it happens quickly. Like I gained trust for my girlfriend really quickly. Now she’s like a rock to me. She’s not my rock. She’s not my– again, reiterating the fact your girlfriend should not be your therapist. But she provides some grounding to my life. And it makes all the difference.

Venus: Thank you again, Emily. We just have one last question for you. What is the ultimate goal that you hope to accomplish with your work with Penn Benjamins? What visions do you have for Penn with regard to its social environment and its student wellness?

Emily: I want us to expand. I want us to be a name that people know about, and that people know that they can rely on. Like, oh, I can go to Penn Bens at 10:00 PM tonight in Van Pelt in GSR 101.10. They’re going to be there and they’re going to hear me out. I want you to have that trust in us.

Because we’re peer students and we’re here to listen. And we have very similar problems as other Penn students. Because we are Penn students. My goal with Bens is for people to know that, yo, we’re here, we got you. We got your back.

I’m trying to get the name on the map so that people know that we’re there for them. That’s the goal with Bens, Bens specifically. We provide support and help guide their peer through different issues. So Bens, I just want people to know that we’re there for them.

What I hope for the overall Penn community is for people to feel like they have more support. You consistently see like brochures, resources, emails, oh, the number of CAPS is here. The number of like the Vice Provost is here. Or the email of the Vice Provost is here. You have all these numbers.

But you damn well know, if you call them, you email them, are you really going to get a response? Are they really going to be there for you? I email Penn all the time. Financial aid, stuff like that. Just random stuff. I don’t always get a response. You kind of know that the resources are there on the list, but are they really– do they really care to listen?

My hope for Penn is that people have a confidence that you call, they’ll listen. They care that your experience is not going well. Whenever a student passes away, we get this email. Oh, your classmate in the class of 2023 just passed away.

And you have at the bottom of the email this list of resources. I don’t believe as students trust that they email those resources, they call those resources, they’re going to get the help that they really need. Like they’re there. But are they really there?

So I guess my hope is that, in the future, Penn students know that they have a body to rely on, that they know Bens is going to be there. That they know [INAUDIBLE] is going to pick up. Granted, [INAUDIBLE] Honestly, kudos to them. Because people know about them. Like good job. And people will be using their service. Like that’s really good for them.

Granted, I know there’s a lot more people on campus that don’t know about these services and should, and would make great use of them. But we’re trying our best to do that. But yeah, it’s the security and your support. That’s my hope for Penn.

Steven: Thank you, Emily, genuinely for your time today, and for talking with us and for providing your perspective on how students might be feeling about these issues.

Emily: Yeah, of course. Thank you for having me.

Steven: Thank you for listening to the special episode of The PARK, hosted by us students at Icarus. It has been an absolute honor to be part of such an amazing series and to talk to all of our wonderful guests today. We cannot express our appreciation enough to [SNF] Paideia for allowing us the opportunity to explore these crucial issues with them through the production of this episode.

Venus: Regular episodes of The PARK will continue in the fall with your usual host, so please stay tuned. Until then, please stay well. If you see someone struggling, remember the impact that one caring person can have for them. And remember that there are people out there who would be happy to be that person for you as well. Never believe you don’t deserve them.

Steven: My name is Steven.

Venus: And I’m Venus.

Thank you for listening.

Graphic for Icarus Research Group and Park Podcast


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