Recommendations for Improved Student Mental Health at Cornell University

The Sophie Fund, briefing the Cornell University Mental Health Review teams this week, issued 22 recommendations for improving the institution’s student mental health conditions and services.

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Entrance to Cornell Health, Cornell University

Highlights of the recommendations include: aim for a student mental health “gold standard”; avoid excessive academic and social stress levels; upgrade clinical psychological counseling services; rationalize referrals to overburdened community mental health providers; effectively fight sexual assault and hazing; implement a student-centered health leave of absence policy; print the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number on student ID cards; create an ombuds for student mental health; and establish a Standing Committee on Student Mental Health to regularly review Cornell’s practices.

“Cornell, in common with probably all institutions of higher education, is confronted by a student mental health crisis,” said Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund, speaking in a video conference call with the heads of the Mental Health Review Committee and External Review Team. “In our increasingly complicated world, college students are dealing with immense pressures during a transitional time in their lives and at an age when they are vulnerable to the onset of mental illness.”

“Much more needs to be done by institutions of higher education—including Cornell—to address those challenges. We need to better support the legions of students who are struggling with anxiety and depression and other disorders so that their mental health experiences do not break their trajectory toward successful and fulfilling lives.”

MacLeod added that “leadership is the ultimate key to successfully addressing the crisis, especially given the complexities around mental health and the complexities of managing an extremely large institution. Leadership will make all the difference in whether Cornell achieves real progress in better supporting student mental health, or tinkers around the margins with no tangible and sustainable improvement.”

Cornell’s “comprehensive review of student mental health,” announced in 2018 by President Martha E. Pollack, is taking place throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. According to Cornell’s website, the internal Mental Health Review Committee “is tasked with examining the Cornell campus context, including issues pertaining to the academic and social environment, climate, and culture related to mental health.” The External Review Team “is charged with a comprehensive review of clinical services and campus-based strategies.”

Click here to read or download The Sophie Fund’s “Recommendations on Student Mental Health at Cornell University,” presented to the review teams on January 15.

Click here to read or download The Sophie Fund’s “Perspectives on Student Mental Health at Cornell University,” presented to the review teams on August 23, 2019.

Detailed highlights of The Sophie Fund’s recommendations:

  • Cornell leadership should humbly acknowledge the existence of the crisis and the systemic challenges that must be overcome, and commit to working vigorously and transparently with all stakeholders to address the crisis.

 

  • Cornell leadership should aim for a student mental health gold standard, sparing no effort or expense in finding ways to successfully address the student mental health crisis. The crisis demands a gold standard, not a band aid.

 

  • Cornell leadership should provide and be held accountable for student mental health resources that are commensurate with the challenges, sufficient to support best practices, and in proportion with spending on other institutional priorities.

 

  • Cornell leadership should implement a cross-campus framework for supporting student mental health and wellness, with the aim of strengthening accountability, streamlining policies, programs, and practices, and enlisting schools, faculty, staff, and students in a comprehensive, coordinated, results-oriented effort that prioritizes student mental health, healthy living, and unqualified support for every student’s academic success.

 

  • Administrators, deans, and department chairs must be fully engaged in avoiding excessive academic and social stress levels; providing reasonable accommodations for mental health and other disabilities; encouraging help-seeking behaviors; offering meaningful mentoring, advising, and tutoring; providing healthy residence life conditions; promoting resilience and coping skills; and in generally creating the “caring community” that Cornell aspires to be.

 

  • All faculty and staff should be provided with a “Gold Folder”—a one-page chart on recognizing signs of distress related to mental health or sexual assault, how to engage students in distress, and how to guide them to professional help.

 

  • Deans should be responsible for knowing the identities of Students of Concern and closely following their cases.

 

  • Administrators, deans, and department chairs must be engaged in identifying and supporting at-risk students.

 

  • Psychological clinical services must be upgraded to ensure that every student who needs help gets the best possible support, and that no student falls through the cracks of an overburdened and distracted healthcare system.

 

  • Cornell leadership should cease the practice of outsourcing student mental health treatment based on overburdened campus services. If more campus services are needed, then they should be provided.

 

  • Cornell should ensure that referrals to community providers are made solely on the basis of student preference, and are made to providers who are capable of accepting new clients and have been fully vetted.

 

  • Cornell leadership should develop and publish a comprehensive suicide prevention policy incorporating current and anticipated best practices, including the Zero Suicide Model in healthcare, and mandatory training in suicide prevention tools for gatekeepers including RAs, deans, department heads, and academic advisors.

 

  • Cornell leadership should develop new and effective strategies to combat the serious problems of sexual assault and hazing within its student body.

 

  • Cornell leadership should develop new and effective strategies for addiction prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery support.

 

  • Cornell leadership should institute a mandatory online education module prior to freshman registration that provides students with information about mental health risk factors and warning signs, Cornell data related to student mental health, and resources for receiving support.

 

  • Cornell leadership should create and implement a leave of absence policy that prioritizes the interests of the student over those of the institution, and is designed to fully safeguard students’ health, academic, financial interests, and successful life trajectory. Cornell leadership must fully support students throughout the leave process—i.e., before, during, and after leaves are taken.

 

  • Cornell leadership should create an ombuds position to serve as an independent campus advocate for student mental health rights and to provide practical assistance to students navigating the university’s healthcare system and academic accommodations.

 

  • Cornell leadership should provide an effective factual presentation about student mental health risks and responses to parents of all incoming students before or during freshman orientation.

 

  • Psychological counselors and academic advisors should encourage struggling students to consult their parents and include them in discussions related to important decisions such as health leaves of absence.

 

  • Cornell leadership should leverage online platforms including Internet websites and social media accounts to deliver effective mental health education, effectively fight stigma and encourage help-seeking behavior, and most importantly, effectively provide resources for addressing mental health crises.

 

  • Cornell should print the telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on student ID cards.

 

  • Cornell leadership should establish a Standing Committee on Student Mental Health including a range of key campus stakeholders to regularly review Cornell’s policies and practices and issue annual reports on identified needs for continued quality improvement.

Support Student-to-Student Mental Health at Cornell University

Our country is experiencing a growing mental health crisis, one that is seriously affecting college students at a vulnerable transitional stage in their lives. More than 40 percent of college students surveyed said they “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” and 11.3 percent seriously considered suicide, according to the 2018 National College Health Assessment.

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Cornell students attending a Reflect dinner

As college administrations everywhere struggle to meet the demands for mental health services, students themselves are stepping up to support one another. Empowering students amid their struggles is an essential way of helping them fulfill their meaningful life journeys.

In this season of giving, The Sophie Fund invites its friends and supporters to consider a donation before the end of 2019 to The Reflect Organization, a nonprofit innovator in student wellness that is making a difference on the campus of Cornell University and several others.

To make a donation, go to: http://www.reflecteffect.org/donate

The timing is crucial: a generous anonymous donor has pledged to match all donations up to $100,000 made by a deadline of December 31. As of today, Reflect has raised $84,000 of the $100,000 target.

Reflect is the brainchild of Jared Fenton, who launched the organization in 2015 after one of his classmates at the University of Pennsylvania took her own life. Fenton believes that students can support each other by speaking openly and honestly about their mental health. To provide a space for that to happen, Reflect sponsors monthly dinners as well as mental health programs and trainings that are creating a culture of authenticity, self-love, and allyship on campus.

After graduating from Penn in 2016, Fenton began responding to requests to launch Reflect chapters on other campuses—so far, they are up and running at Cornell, Columbia University, Barnard College, Queens College, and La Salle University.

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Jared Fenton, founder of The Reflect Organization

Cornell students attending Reflect’s programs—and there are hundreds of them—report better connections with other students, more willingness to discuss personal mental health issues, and greater readiness to seek help when needed.

“One of the most empowering things about Cornell Reflect is that students are able to help their peers just by being open,” says Talia Ostrow ’20. “We are changing the campus climate to one of openness all on our own.”

Reaching the campaign target of $100,000, doubled to $200,000 through the matching donation from Reflect’s anonymous supporter, will enable Reflect to take its work to a new level. This $200,000 will make possible an expansion in Cornell Reflect’s training and outreach efforts, enabling the program to serve a wider range of students, more effectively. It also will help facilitate Reflect’s planned growth to serve students on even more campuses.

Make a donation before December 31 by clicking the link:

www.reflecteffect.org/donate

Sexual Assault Survivors and Allies

Hope Gardner, a junior at Ithaca College, found herself spiraling downward after being sexually assaulted in 2018. She could hardly eat or sleep for days. But she soon turned her personal traumatic experience into a passionate cause: to change the conversation around sexual assault on the Ithaca College campus and in the wider Ithaca community.

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Sydney Muraoka, Hope Gardner, and Sobeida Rosa

Gardner, along with the support of colleagues and encouragement of friends, established IC Strike, a student organization that seeks justice for assault survivors and provides them with tangible support. The group is on a mission to empower assault victims and break the stigma around the issue.

“I was failed by the justice system and was feeling very helpless,” Gardner said in an interview about her inspiration for launching IC Strike. “I was frustrated by the lack of resources. I felt like I needed to find some sort of action that I could do in order to continue healing, so I approached a couple of friends with my idea for this organization and was immediately met with widespread support and interest from everyone I talked to.”

Gardner is president of IC Strike. Alongside Vice President Sydney Muraoka, and Treasurer Sobeida Rosa, she is building the organization by creating a network of survivors and allies. IC Strike carried out numerous programs and fundraisers in the fall 2019 semester. It sponsored a talk by Associate Professor Paula Ioanide on alternative forms of justice for survivors of assault. On December 11, it hosted an end of semester banquet to present funds and toiletries the group collected in support of the Advocacy Center of Tompkins County, an organization that aids sexual assault and domestic violence victims.

“My goal is that IC Strike will change the narrative on campus about sexual assault survivorship and allyship, helping survivors to regain a sense of agency,” Gardner explained. “My hope is that we will create a brave space where we can challenge the status quo, the stigma, and the belief that survivors need to be quiet about their experiences.”

Gardner believes that the space created by IC Strike can be helpful for survivors as they process the trauma of their assault.

“It can affect your self-image, your ability to be intimate, and how you live your day to day life,” she said. “I was barely able to eat or sleep for days. I found myself in a downward spiral due to PTSD, anxiety, depression. The effects of assault do not go away once the attack is over, and it’s vital that we offer support and resources for survivors, helping them however we can in adjusting to their new normal.”

For Muraoka, challenging the status quo includes reforming Ithaca College’s judicial system for handling sexual assault cases according to federal law. Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 protects students from sexual harassment and violence and requires schools to handle assault allegations.

Gardner commented that many students believe the judicial system at IC is severely lacking and in turn re-traumatizing for victims while yielding few positive results. This can be extremely damaging to students’ physical and mental health, she said.

“I know people who have had to switch out of courses that are vital to their majors because the person who assaulted them was in that same class,” she said. “Not feeling safe on campus can have an incredibly negative affect on survivors’ mental and physical well-being, as well as academic performance.”

Gardner and Muraoka are hopeful. They have confidence in Linda Koenig, Ithaca College’s Title IX coordinator, who they believe goes “above and beyond” for students. They are closely watching the administration’s actions to hire a new assistant director for Judicial Affairs, who chairs Conduct Review Boards for cases of alleged sexual misconduct and serves as a member of the Title IX SHARE Advisory Committee and Policy, Procedure, and Practice Committee.

“We need someone who knows Title IX and has proper training in areas such as dealing with victims of trauma, including sexual assaults and domestic violence,” said Muraoka. “We hope to help see things improve for students that come forward in the future.

Campus rape and domestic violence cases steadily increased from 2016, according to the Ithaca College Office of Public Safety and Emergency Management’s Annual Security and Fire Safety Report released in October. Reported rape cases on campus rose from eight in 2016 and 11 in 2017 to 13 in 2018.

A 2017 Campus Climate Research Study survey of students, faculty, and staff reported that 15 percent of respondents experienced “unwanted sexual conduct,” and 3 percent experienced “unwanted sexual contact” defined as rape, assault, or fondling.

Lara Hamburger, Campus Educator at the Advocacy Center, commended IC Strike’s work.

“Groups like IC Strike create space for survivors and allies to create meaningful change on their campus and beyond,” Hamburger said. “They create an environment where folks can speak out against violence while having a real impact on their community.”

She added: “While still a very new club at Ithaca College, IC Strike has already done great work. They’ve shown their solidarity to survivors in the community by organizing a toiletries drive for the Advocacy Center, and raised funds for our organization. Groups like these have great symbolic value as well. They serve to break the silence and isolation around these issues, and take a public stand so that their classmates and colleagues know that sexual violence won’t be tolerated on their campus.”

—By Meredith Nash

Meredith Nash is a senior Writing major at Ithaca College and an intern at The Sophie Fund

Our Community Is Working to Prevent Youth Bullying

More than 30 adults and young people joined members of the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force on November 19 in attending a Community Café on the topic of youth bullying.

A young woman opened the discussion at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center by sharing inspirational words based on her experiences with being bullied. She tasked all attendees with homework to put an end to bullying when it happens, and to listen to young people when they come to adults for help.

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The GIAC Navigators performed an original rap song “Stop Bullying” that encouraged attendees to find common ground.

The event included a short but powerful video posted on YouTube by Spokane, Washington, Public Schools that included interviews with youth of all ages about bullying.

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Participants then engaged in small-group conversations to share their own experiences, discuss existing resources and strategies, and offer ideas for bullying prevention. The information provided the attendees will be provided to the Task Force for consideration in its work.

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Representatives from more than two dozen local government agencies, community organizations, and local schools formed the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force earlier this year to explore the prevalence of youth, teen, and young adult bullying and strategies to combat it.

The Task Force plans further community cafe events throughout the county in 2020.

To learn how to participate in the Task Force’s work or inquire about future community cafe events, email thesophiefund2016@gmail.com

Bullying: We Need Your Voice

The Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force is launching a series of “community cafés,” starting with an event next Tuesday November 19 from 5:30 to 7 pm at the Greater Area Ithaca Center (GIAC) 301 West Court Street in Ithaca. The event is open to parents, students, professionals, educators, and all community members. Food and childcare will be provided.

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A community café is a facilitated conversation that is used to spark creative ideas and solutions to local issues or concerns and that provides resources around a topic. The Task Force is keen to connect with local families in the community to learn about their experiences and thoughts around the topic of bullying in Tompkins County.

Specifically, we seek to gauge the awareness of local resources within our community and help inform ourselves about the current strategies being used, and what new strategies might be needed to help our youth address this important topic with success within their daily lives. We will also be seeking what resources might be needed within Tompkins County to help provide better supports for the parents of youth who are struggling with bullying.

The Task Force intends to use the information gathered at this local event to inform the larger work of the Task Force, and also help ensure that our community partners are using our local resources to garner maximum impact. While it is not always possible to prevent every single episode of bullying, we are committed to working with our local families to create safe spaces for our youth, where conversations can be had with caring adults to help them address the issue of bullying, should it ever impact them or another child in their circles.

Earlier this year, representatives from more than two dozen local government agencies, community organizations, and local schools formed the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force to explore the prevalence of youth, teen, and young adult bullying and strategies to combat it.

We hope you will consider joining us for this very important conversation next Tuesday at GIAC. We look forward to working together to help make Tompkins County a bullying free zone for everyone! If you have any questions or need further information, please reach out to the Tompkins County Youth Services Department at (607) 274-5310.

—By Kate Shanks-Booth

Kate Shanks-Booth is the director of the Tompkins County Youth Services Department and a coordinator for the Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force