Cornell President Promises Holistic Review of Student Mental Health

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack says that Cornell will be conducting a “comprehensive review” of student mental health, possibly beginning in early 2019. She says the “team” at Cornell Health had advocated for the review “to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus.”

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Cornell University campus

Pollack’s statement came in a letter dated September 20 to Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the co-founders of The Sophie Fund. In a letter dated August 23, they had called on Pollack to “appoint without further delay an independent, external-led task force to review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students, and the university’s policies, practices, and programs to address them; and to make recommendations to the Cornell President to ensure that the university is implementing current best practices.”

MacLeod and Hack published their letter to Pollack in a blog post on September 8 headlined, “Time for a Mental Health Task Force at Cornell.”

In her reply to the MacLeod/Hack letter, Pollack said: “We will be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell… The team at Cornell Health—those in both clinical and educational roles—have advocated for this review to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus.”

Pollack said that Cornell Health “will work with the campus community” beginning this semester “to determine the appropriate scope for this review, which could potentially begin in early 2019.”

Pollack thanked MacLeod and Hack “for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.”

Pollack’s letter did not respond directly to MacLeod/Hack’s request for an “independent, external-led” review. In their letter, they wrote: “The independent task force should be led by a recognized public health expert with a strong background in mental health and without any current or previous ties to Cornell or to organizations and professional associations focused on collegiate mental health.”

In a September 18 email to Cornell students reported by the Cornell Daily Sun, Vice President Ryan Lombardi announced plans for “a comprehensive review of student mental health” that will bring together “internal and external partners.”

In a September 18 email to the Sun, Lombardi said: “While for many years the university has engaged in regular assessment of student mental health needs and evaluation of services and programs, the decision to pursue an additional comprehensive review of student mental health reflects the University’s commitment to promoting health and well-being as a foundation for academic and personal success.”

In a statement to the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) on September 24 reported by the Sun, Lombardi said he “can’t speak … to exactly who” will be conducting the review but that the administration does “envision it being external audiences.”

“I think part of the first step is to understand what we want to look at, and then I think that will really inform that broader question about who’s best to come in,” he said. “Obviously I think we’re going to want people to have expertise in mental health. I don’t want that just to be Cornell folks.”

In her letter to MacLeod and Hack, Pollack noted that the intention to conduct a comprehensive review was cited in an update about “diversity and inclusion” initiatives posted on the Office of the President’s website, apparently in early September, and announced in Lombardi’s email to students on September 18. The reference read as follows:

Conduct a comprehensive review of student mental health.

Cornell Health will work with the campus community during the fall 2018 semester to determine the appropriate scope for a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell, anticipating that such a review could potentially begin in early 2019.

MacLeod and Hack, whose daughter Sophie (’14) died by suicide while on a health leave of absence in 2016, initially wrote to Pollack on April 19, 2017 detailing their concerns about “systemic failure” in Cornell’s institutional handling of mental health matters, and calling on her to launch an independent task force review. However, in a letter to MacLeod and Hack on January 11, 2018, Pollack declined their request, citing an “external assessment” conducted by The JED Foundation, JED’s on-site visit to the Cornell campus in the summer of 2017, and Cornell’s “ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.”

MacLeod and Hack said that they wrote to Pollack in August asking her to reverse her decision after studying the JED review and finding it “plainly insufficient.” They said a glaring omission was the lack of any reference in findings or recommendations regarding the capacity of the Counseling and Psychological Services staff to meet the demands of students for services. Another omission, they said, was the lack of any reference to the capacity of community mental health providers to address the needs of Cornell students referred to those off-campus services by CAPS. They said that the JED-review documents reported no findings and recommendations in areas such as academic workloads and faculty and academic staff handling of students in distress, and appeared to lack a comprehensive assessment of Cornell’s suicide prevention policies and practices.

MacLeod and Hack also questioned the independence of the review, pointing out that institutions of higher education pay The JED Foundation a fee to become what JED calls “partners” in the JED Campus program. They also said that the JED review entailed only one on-site campus visit by a JED External Contributor, one that lasted merely three hours and did not include meetings with any of the community providers who receive many CAPS referrals. They also said it appeared that Cornell had not released all relevant documents pertaining to the JED review.

In response to Pollack’s September 20 letter, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement:

“We welcome President Pollack’s personal engagement and specifically her commitment to conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell. We commend Cornell Health for advocating for this review “to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus,” as President Pollack said. Lastly, we are encouraged to know that the Cornell administration will consult with students and other members of the community as the review proceeds.

“There is a mounting mental health crisis facing our young people today, and the goal of the comprehensive review should be not merely to tinker with the existing system but to create a gold standard for supporting student mental health in the years to come. As one of the world’s leading research institutions, Cornell should expect no less of itself.

“We continue to stress the importance of a truly independent, robust, and transparent review, led by an external expert—a recognized public health authority with a strong background in mental health and without any current or previous ties to Cornell. This is vital, both to ensure the best possible outcome and to win the confidence of Cornell students and the wider campus and Ithaca communities that the university administration is doing its utmost to support student mental health.”

The full September 20, 2018 letter from President Pollack:

Dear Ms. Hack and Mr. MacLeod,

Thank you for your letter dated august 23, 2018, and for your care and concern for the mental health and well-being of Cornell students.

As you may have seen in our recently announced diversity and inclusion initiatives (https://president.cornell.edu/diversity-and-inclusion-initiatives/), we will be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell. Beginning this semester, Cornell Health will work with the campus community to determine the appropriate scope for this review, which could potentially begin in early 2019. Vice president Lombardi also shared this news with our students in a message sent on September 18, along with other updates and investments in mental health support services.

The team at Cornell Health—those in both clinical and educational roles—have advocated for this review to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus. We also continue to engage with and support mental health resources in the larger community.

Thank you again for reaching out to me and for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.

Sincerely,

Martha E. Pollack