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.”