Head of Counseling at Penn Dies in Suicide

He was highly regarded.

September 11, 2019
Gregory Eells

Gregory Eells, executive director of counseling and psychological services at the University of Pennsylvania, died by suicide early Monday morning.

​Eells, 52, had been in the position for six months. Previously he was at Cornell University for nearly a decade, and before that at the University of Southern Mississippi.

The incident occurred around 6:40 a.m. and was ruled a suicide by the medical examiner's office. Eells jumped from the 17th floor of a building.

Police reported no note was left. Eells's mother Jeanette Eells-Rich told The Philadelphia Inquirer that her son had complained about the demands and stress of his new job at Penn, and how it kept him from his wife and three children.

Eells joined the Penn staff in March after his appointment in January, following the university's nine-month search.

In an email to the campus community, the vice provost and associate vice provost expressed condolences to Eells's family and provided information to counseling resources available.

Since 2013, 14 students have died by suicide at the University of Pennsylvania. A study last year found that one in five college students had suicidal thoughts over the past year.

Over the past 10 years, the CAPS programs at Penn have expanded tremendously. Students, parents, faculty and staff at Penn had become more involved in the discussions around counseling and mental health following the deaths. Advocacy groups have formed and new systems have been put in place.

Eells was described by his former colleagues as "transformational" and praised by Penn students who worked closely with him.

In 2012 while Eells was at Cornell, the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors awarded Eells the lifetime achievement award for his work with university health care systems.

The American College Health Association President Katrin Wesner-Harts of the University of North Carolina Wilmington provided the following statement on behalf of the organization with which Eells was affiliated:

"Dr. Greg Eells was a beloved member of the ACHA community. He was a champion for mental health and was a resource to many, including as a past chair of the ACHA Mental Health Section. His death reminds us of the importance of improving the mental health and well-being of our nation's students and the caregivers that serve them. We must focus on the resiliency and grit of our nation's caregivers in order to strengthen and support them as they serve as front line providers addressing the growing mental health issues being seen across the nation. Greg challenged us to serve our students in a caring and compassionate manner and to be advocates for mental health at all time. He will be greatly missed."

Sharon Mitchell, president of the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors (of which Eells previously served as president), said they learned through the media of Eells's death and that AUCCCD members were grieving the loss of their close colleague.

"To lose a beloved colleague and friend to suicide amplifies everyone's levels of shock, disbelief and sadness," Mitchell said. "As with any death by suicide, the questions come hard and fast, questions that do not have and may never have answers."

"As campus professionals, we face our own high expectations in addition to those of students, parents, faculty, staff, administrators, media and society," Mitchell continued. "We have lives and loved ones and responsibilities beyond the workplace. Many days, we may feel like it's almost too much to carry. As healers, care-givers and campus professionals, it can be difficult to reach out and become a care-receiver. Some days, it's hard to stay connected to the care and support others willingly offer all of us."

Mitchell urged campus and campus-affiliated individuals who may be struggling to reach out to their colleagues and other organizations for help.

Penn Provost Wendell Pritchett said at the time of Eells's hiring: "Greg Eells will be a vital collaborator in our campus-wide initiatives to sustain wellness across the university. In particular, his vision and experience will be invaluable as we continue to improve and integrate our services dedicated to student wellness."

Prior to coming to Penn, Eells met with student groups and prioritized getting to know the campus community and culture. He was reportedly interested in expanding CAP's reach beyond its traditional offices to be more accessible to the entire community.

While at Cornell, Eells emphasized hiring diverse staff and more counselors to cut down on student wait time. During the 2009 to 2010 academic year, six students at Cornell died by suicide.

Eells had numerous webinars and professional publications. According to his staff page on the Penn website, Eells was interested in resilience and suicide prevention.

Suicide awareness week this year runs from Sunday, September 8 to Saturday, September 14. The world suicide prevention day was September 10.

Note: If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the 24-7 National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or text TALK to the Crisis Text Line at 741-741.

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Elin Johnson

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