The ever-wise Fred Rogers noted that his mother would tell him to “Look for the helpers” when he’d see something frightening in the news.
It is good advice for those who have faced trauma or trouble, or who simply need a friendly ear.
But what happens when the helpers need help?
Gregory Eells was one of those helpers. Since March, he had served as executive director of Counseling and Psychological Services at the University of Pennsylvania. He had more than 20 years of experience in directing counseling centers, including at the University of Southern Mississippi and later at Cornell University.
Penn is my alma mater. For me, from 1993 to 1997, Penn was a safe place that provided me and many of my classmates with resources we needed at a time of great change for many of us personally. But for the last six years, CAPS has been at the center of a swirling storm at Penn as 14 students have died by suicide since 2013.
Last week, Eells killed himself, apparently jumping from the 17th floor of a Philadelphia building.
Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, but among 15- to 24-year-olds, it's the second-leading cause of death. In 2017, more than 47,000 people nationwide died by suicide; 6,252 in the 15-to-24 age bracket. But while we know how many were men and how many were women, how many were young and how many were old, we don’t know how many were mental health professionals tasked with helping us through our troubles.
Experts say the rate of mental health illnesses among psychologists is no lower than in the general population. And the stress that counselors and others face when dealing with others’ trauma, in work that can be lonely and unforgiving makes them particularly susceptible to descending into their own dark places. What’s more, there’s a culture in the mental health profession that encourages lots of work and a tough mental attitude — a culture that has to change, according to Samuel Knapp, director of professional affairs at the Pennsylvania Psychological Association.
“You’re going to be hurting, and you’ve got to start talking about it,” Knapp said.
That’s particularly true for those who work with high school and college students, for whom suicide is a prevalent concern. Yet, college campuses often lack the number of mental health professionals and other resources needed to address those needs, according to Mitch Prinstein, a professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Counselors are often overworked, and lack the time and space necessary to deal with their own issues. Without enough mental health professionals in a given counseling office, some counselors don’t have peers and colleagues with whom to share the caseload, or their individual troubles.
Suicide, Prinstein rightly pointed out, is a “national public health crisis.”
But as a nation, we’re not doing enough about any of this. It has not been adequately addressed on the federal or state level. There’s not enough regulation on the training received by guidance counselors, social workers, and other mental health professionals who are not medical doctors.
It is unclear what led to Eells’ death, but the tragedy underscores the need to focus on providing the services students, counselors, faculty and others need. If we do that, then perhaps when we turn to the “helpers” for help, they will not only be able to help us, but one another as well.
Randi F. Marshall is a member of Newsday's editorial board.