Jared Fenton never heard the phrase “mental health” until his high school health class.
He always had an interest in physical health — teaching yoga and pilates, playing sports — but mental health was a phenomenon that not enough people were talking about at the time.
But Fenton added to the conversation on a national scale, creating The Reflect Organization as a student at the University of Pennsylvania.
Reflect provides support for students’ mental health through a safe space to engage in open and honest discussions.
“People seemed willing and wanting to interact with others,” he recalled of interactions his freshman year. “However, at the same time, people weren’t open about what they were feeling.”
With the influx of social media, he noticed his fellow students often showed “Penn Face,” in which students appear happy in their social media photos but hide sadness and stress underneath.
In 2014, classmate Madison Holleran, a freshman track star at Penn, committed suicide by jumping off a campus parking garage.
“It’s a tragedy to lose a life, no matter who the life is,” said Fenton.
He didn’t know her personally, but shortly after her suicide, his close friend went through a critical crisis.
“I did what I had to do in that moment to keep my friend safe,” he said. Now, his friend is alive and thriving, which to Fenton is “still the single most important thing that has ever come out of my work in mental health.”
Those moments pushed Fenton further to understand how “wearing your social media profile” could have negative consequences, and he felt compelled to do something.
According to National Data on Campus Suicide and Depression, about 60 percent of college students nationally feel isolated — while Penn students call this “Penn Face,” it’s taken form as “Duck Syndrome” at Stanford and “The Undertow” at Tulane.
“While there are varied stressors, varied originators of certain things that might cause people to go into distress,” he said, “there have always been those things,” like stress over finances, relationships or careers.
But what there hasn’t always been is social media “and this newfound need to mask all of your emotions.”
Fenton saw an opportunity to help solve this crisis by enabling students to be their true selves.
“You’re still going to have that financial stress. You’re still going to have that career stress. But at least you can talk about it,” he explained.
“By talking about it and being real, you will no longer feel like you’re an imposter.”
An experience studying Spanish in Argentina one semester — he also majored in political science while balancing the Civic Scholars Program — impacted him as well.
He went out to a bar with his host family and their friends, where one member of the family turned to his friends and said, “So, how were your visits to therapy this week?”
“In a bar!” Fenton exclaimed. “That was the first question.”
He wanted to bring the ideas of normalizing therapy and having an open discussion back to the states.
Fenton founded The Reflect Organization almost three years ago to create a place where students can have a therapeutic experience.
He pooled his bartending funds to create the Penn Reflect chapter.
“We train students to run facilitated group discussions in a destigmatized setting about whatever the students who attend want to discuss,” said the 22-year-old.
With 400 members, they make it work.
Reflect joined Penn’s bill of many mental health-related student-led organizations on campus, such as Reach-A-Peer (RAP) Helpline, Penn Benjamins, CogWell, Active Minds, Penn Initiative for Minority Mental Health (PIMMH), Quaker Peer Recovery and Penn Wellness.
Monthly Penn Reflect meetings are held in Harrison College House, and the program has since spread to the campuses at Cornell, Columbia and La Salle. Chapters at Queens College and the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine are in the works.
Fenton said he’s seen an increase in students’ self-confidence and communication.
“They are finally realizing what the true college experience is rather than the college experience that has an Instagram filter,” he said.
“They feel like they have a community.”
Reflect works as an intermediary between campus connections and traditional therapy.
“We’re solving for a need that was unmet, which is that fact that students who are not going to therapy need the ability to be open and honest,” he added.
Fenton also expanded the idea with the Reflections Program in which different groups of freshmen are paired up with an upperclass mentor throughout the year.
The Philadelphia native graduated in May and since took on the nonprofit full time.
The value of tikkun olam was instilled in him at a young age by his mother, who volunteered for countless events and also started her own nonprofit, The Starfish Project for Children, to get kids active in community service.
She explained to Fenton the importance of giving back in a metaphor: “Community service is like brushing your teeth. … You brush your teeth because it’s what humans do.
“You don’t think about it. It’s not special. It’s just what you do.”