Cupcake Buttons: Supporting Suicide Prevention

The Sophie Fund presented a donation check for $829.50 on Wednesday evening to the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS) of Ithaca. Cornell University’s Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and Active Minds at Ithaca College raised the funds in The Sophie Fund’s “cupcake button” campaign last fall.


Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho hands a check to Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin

Both student organizations set up fundraising tables on their campuses as well as at GreenStar Natural Food Market’s stores in the West End and Collegetown. Alpha Phi Omega also raised funds in the Ithaca Commons during the Apple Harvest Festival. The Sophie Fund selected SPCS to be the recipient of monies collected in the 2017 cupcake button campaign.

“We sincerely thank Alpha Phi Omega and Active Minds, as well as all the many people who made generous donations, for supporting the cause of suicide prevention in Tompkins County,” said Scott MacLeod, an officer of The Sophie Fund.

“The student organizations not only collected money, but they engaged meaningful conversations within their own circles and with the campus and Ithaca communities about mental health. The commitment of these organizations is nothing less than amazing. Hats off to GreenStar for allowing us to raise funds at their locations and for their tremendous support for mental health and well-being in the community.”

Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho handed over the donation check in a brief ceremony to SPCS Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin. Ho was joined by Alpha Phi Omega members Joanna Hua, Trisha Ray, and Ashley Kim.

“As college students who have the privilege to interact with so many different organizations across our campus and in our local community, we have had the chance to see how critical it is that mental health and wellness is supported on every level,” said Ho.

“The partnership between Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and The Sophie Fund is the result of a dedication to improving mental health on collegiate campuses. We are thrilled to be working with incredible organizations such as Ithaca Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services who have done so much for students and community members. There is important work still left to be done to support our peers, but we are optimistic about the future of this collaboration.”

S. Makai Andrews, co-president of Ithaca College’s Active Minds chapter, and an intern at SPCS and The Sophie Fund, led the Active Minds effort. “We wanted to participate in the button selling as a means to increase mental health visibility in the Ithaca area and reduce the stigma surrounding these situations,” said Andrews. “We were happy to serve as examples of college-aged students who have struggled with our mental health and spoke with many interesting people in the community about what changes they would like to see in how we talk about mental health.”

“Gifts like these always give us a lift, helping us continue the work we do by reminding us that the community cares,” said Marvin. “The staff, board, and volunteers of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service are grateful for this donation because we know that it represents a big effort by student members of Alpha Phi Omega at Cornell and Active Minds at Ithaca College.”


Peri Margolies and S. Makai Andrews of Active Minds at GreenStar Natural Foods Market during the cupcake button campaign

SPRC operates Crisisline, offering free and confidential crisis counseling, staffed 365 days a year by trained volunteers who respond to calls from Tompkins County and across the 607 area code. It also provides “The Chat,” an Internet chat service for young people who are reluctant to talk on the telephone.

The Crisisline is a member of the National Suicide Lifeline system and is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology. It is also a founding member of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition established last July.

The overall mission of SPCS is to promote constructive responses to crisis and trauma and to prevent violence to self and others through direct support and community education.

SPRC’s Education Program provides suicide prevention and mental health programs to youth and adults in public schools, colleges, and universities, and community-based settings.

Another program is After-Trauma Services, which provides free short-term counseling and support groups to those who have lost a loved one to suicide or unexpected death.

SPCS traces its history back to 1968, when Ithacans lobbied for a 24-hour crisis line following a series of suicides in the community. Reverend Jack Lewis took the first call in 1969, from a young man who felt so upset that he had decided the only solution was to kill himself. With the help of SPCS’s first volunteer counselor, the young man renewed his hope and sense of possibility.

“We’re so thankful for the essential work that SPCS does to educate the public and provide support for people struggling with mental disorders and suicidal thoughts,” said MacLeod. “Calling the Crisisline, if you or somebody you know is experiencing difficulties, can literally save a life.”

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

Cornell: “We Can and Will Do More” on Mental Health

Cornell University Vice President Ryan Lombardi said in a university statement Thursday that delivery of mental health services is a top Cornell priority and that the university “can and will do more” to support student health and well-being.


Lombardi said in a statement to the in-house Cornell Chronicle that three internal reviews last fall and “other conversations” have led the administration to identify three areas “that need further attention.” These are:

—“Matching CAPS staffing levels with community expectations for timeliness and frequency of care”;

—“Investing in other key elements of the comprehensive approach to support student well-being, campus health and safety”;

—“Recruiting and retaining talented health care professionals, particularly underrepresented minority staff.”

The Chronicle reported that new resources have been allocated to grow the CAPS staff from the equivalent of 22 full-time employees in 2006 to 32 in 2018. During that same time period, the report said, the financial resources invested in CAPS have increased by more than $2.5 million.

Acknowledging studies showing that college students nationwide struggle with depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide, Lombardi, Cornell’s vice president for student and campus life, said:

“We know Cornellians struggle, too. We take this seriously, and are committed to supporting our students’ mental health and well-being at Cornell. While we have made great strides and many improvements over the past decade, we can and will do more. … Well-being is foundational to the student experience at Cornell, and it will remain one of my top priorities moving forward.”

According to the Chronicle report, statistics show more students at Cornell are seeking mental health care than in the past. CAPS provided care to 21 percent of Cornell students in 2016-17, up from 13 percent in 2005-06. The Chronicle quoted CAPS Director Gregory Eells saying that the increased demand is due to both an underlying rise in student distress and to students being more open to seeking care.

The Chronicle cited a survey by the National College Health Association showing that the number of students reporting depression has jumped from 32.6 percent in 2013 to 40.2 percent in 2017. In the same time period, thinking about suicide rose from 8.1 to 11.5 percent and attempted suicide from 1.3 to 1.7 percent, nationwide.

Lombardi said that last fall Cornell Health and university administrators reviewed the operating standards and capacity of Cornell Health, the strategic directions of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, and the 2017 external assessment and campus visit summary by The Jed Foundation.

The Jed Foundation is a nonprofit organization assisting schools in evaluating and strengthening mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention programs and systems to safeguard individual and community health. Cornell is a member of the Jed Campus program, a four-year partnership measuring systems, policies, and programs, and providing resources and support.

The Chronicle report touted Cornell’s past accomplishments and awards in student mental health:

“The university boosted the mental health framework’s visibility and reach with the establishment in 2015 of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives in Cornell Health, which develops and evaluates mental health-related strategies and provides leadership for universitywide public health initiatives, policies and coalitions.

“Cornell was awarded the JedCampus Seal by the Jed Foundation, a national organization seeking to reduce suicide rates among college students, in 2013. The university also received the Active Minds Healthy Campus Award in 2015 from Active Minds, a national nonprofit that forms peer-run groups on campuses to empower students to speak openly about mental health, educate others and encourage help-seeking. Cornell’s mental health services also were reviewed during Cornell Health’s reaccreditation in 2015.”

Neither the Chronicle report nor Lombardi’s statement directly mentioned Cornell President Martha E. Pollack’s decision on January 11 to reject a request to establish an independent task force to review the mental health challenges facing Cornell’s 22,000 students as well as the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them.

The request was made on March 27, 2017 by Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the parents of Sophie Hack MacLeod (’14), a Cornell fine arts student who died by suicide in Ithaca in 2016 while on a health leave of absence taken in her senior year. MacLeod and Hack said that in their experience they observed “systemic failure” in Cornell’s mental health policy and practice affecting areas such as suicide prevention, mental health counseling, and sexual violence.

In a statement on Friday, MacLeod and Hack said:

“We welcome the Cornell administration’s willingness to engage the community on student mental health issues, and Vice President Lombardi’s candid acknowledgement that Cornell students are struggling with disorders such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, and that the university administration “can and will do more” to support student well-being.

“We continue to strongly believe that a fully independent task force is the best way to provide the Cornell administration with the best possible assessment of the enormous mental health challenges facing Cornell’s students and of the policies, programs, and practices to address them.

“We have great respect for the Jed Foundation and its important work on behalf of student mental health and campus suicide prevention. Jed Campus is an essential program supporting improved mental health on 156 college campuses nationwide. But JED Campus’s mandate is to operate in “partnership” with institutions, who pay a $22,000 fee for membership, rather than as a robust, fully independent review body. (The director of Cornell CAPS is a member of JED’s Board of Expert Advisors.)

“Despite Vice President Lombardi’s welcome engagement, we continue to have concerns about a closed, defensive mindset in the Cornell administration. It is hard to understand why it took the Cornell President 10 months to provide us with a decision on our request for an independent review, or why she would decline a meeting with the parents of a Cornell student who are making a good-faith effort to bring serious issues about student mental health to the administration’s attention.

“Finally, while we appreciate that the Cornell administration has identified three problem areas, our own observations indicate that this falls very far short of addressing myriad systemic failures. Vice President Lombardi’s referencing of the areas that “need further attention” is very vague. Among other things, it does not directly address the critical issue of Cornell’s heavy reliance on already over-burdened off-campus community mental health providers to support CAPS’s overflow of students in distress. The Cornell Chronicle report featuring Vice President Lombardi’s statement says that the administration has now allocated resources to increase the number of CAPS employees to 32 in 2018—in fact, that is merely an addition of one employee from the 2016 staff headcount, according to CAPS’s figures.

“In the interest of encouraging Cornell to further engage the community in its efforts, we ask the Cornell administration to transparently release the findings of last fall’s review of the operating standards and capacity of Cornell Health and the strategic directions of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, and to release review reports associated with its 2013 JedCampus Seal award and its current Jed Campus partnership.”

Cornell Says “No” to Independent Review of Mental Health Policies

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack this week rejected a request to establish an independent task force to review the mental health challenges facing Cornell students as well as the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them.


Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack

The request was made 10 months ago by Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the parents of Sophie Hack MacLeod (’14), a Cornell fine arts student in the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning who died by suicide in Ithaca at age 23 on March 26, 2016 while on a health leave of absence taken in her senior year.

The request was originally sent in a letter to Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III and then forwarded to Pollack after she took up her post as Cornell’s 14th president in April 2017. The letter was also cc’d to Cornell Board of Trustees Chairman Robert S. Harrison.

In the detailed 13-page letter dated March 27, 2017, MacLeod and Hack said that in their experience as the parents of a Cornell student who took her own life they observed “systemic failure” in Cornell’s mental health policy and practice affecting areas such as suicide prevention, mental health counseling, and sexual violence.

This, they wrote, included a failure to “fully and openly recognize the magnitude of the mental health challenges facing Cornell, and to address them with best practices backed by human and financial resources commensurate to the scale.”

MacLeod and Hack said they observed “an institutional mindset reflecting complacency and defensiveness that appears to prioritize Cornell’s public image over the welfare of students struggling with mental disorders.”

Describing the mental health crisis confronting today’s college students, MacLeod and Hack cited several studies including the 2016 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. The report said that collected data from 139 college counseling centers showed that 33.2 percent of 150,483 college students seeking counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” That was a marked increase from 23.8 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 9.3 percent of the students seeking counseling had reported actually making a suicide attempt.

The letter went on:

“In a constructive spirit, we call on you to establish an independent, external-led task force on student mental health without delay to review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students and the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them; and to make recommendations to the Cornell President to ensure that the university is adopting and implementing current best practices.”

In her initial response on May 3, 2017, Pollack did not address the request for an independent review but thanked MacLeod and Hack for “voicing your broader concerns about Cornell’s policies and programs regarding student mental health.” She added, “We strive to always be open to how we can do better.”

In an email on January 11, Pollack turned down the request for a task force. She also declined a November 28 follow up request from MacLeod and Hack for a meeting to discuss the request for an independent review with the Cornell president in person.

Pollack’s email said in part:

“Please know that we share your commitment to ensuring that we provide the best support possible for our students. …

“We have been thoroughly reviewing our operating standards and capacity at Cornell Health this fall, including institutional and board-level conversations about the operational and strategic direction of the center. On a related note, we reviewed our most recent external assessment provided by the JED Foundation along with their subsequent visit to our campus this past summer. We will continue ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.

“While I acknowledge your request that we establish an additional independent review of the Cornell Health operation, it is not our intent to do so. We appreciate your support and look forward to our continued collaboration in the future.”

MacLeod and Hack established The Sophie Fund in their daughter’s memory in 2016 to advocate for mental health initiatives aiding young people in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Commenting on Pollack’s decisions, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement:

“We have done our best to responsibly bring our concerns to the attention of the university’s senior leadership. President Pollack’s decisions don’t improve our confidence that Cornell has grasped the magnitude of its mental health challenges or fully stepped up to meet them. We hope the internal review she speaks of will be comprehensive and not limited to Cornell Health, and that its findings will be transparently released to the Cornell and Ithaca communities.”

According to Cornell’s website, it ranks 14th among the world’s universities in the 2018 QS World University Rankings, with an enrollment of about 22,000 students.