Cornell Mental Health: Students Speak Out

When I first got involved in mental health advocacy as a freshman, Cornell University was behind in the game. Cornell is an Ivy League school with a very “work hard, play hard” mentality that creates a lot of mental health issues. There are various intersections with related issues, such as high sexual assault rates and substance abuse rates. Cornell is situated within a rural health system, not in an urban area that has a large number of top-rated physicians and psychiatrists. Over time, I saw my friends suffer from the grueling amounts of stress, diagnoses of depression and anxiety, and difficulties finding help including the stigma around seeking help.

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Memorial Room, Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University

These factors led me, along with some fellow students, to establish a student task force on mental health earlier this year. The task force consists of more than 20 students from various backgrounds and campus communities, people with different motivations and different goals. Some of the task force members had been on leaves of absence related to mental health. Some had struggled with anxiety and depression themselves. Others were just very active advocates in the community, whether in service generally or in mental health issues specifically. We all had the common goal of improving mental health at Cornell and in the wider Ithaca community.

Over the course of six months we have worked diligently to research initiatives and policies, gain an understanding about the systems and issues that face Cornell specifically, and develop recommendations with the hope of making Cornell the gold standard for student mental health. We sought to reflect on ourselves critically, and explore areas where efforts were lacking. Is it the administration? Is it students? Is it staff? Is it faculty? Is it mental health services? Or is it the connection with the Ithaca community?

We focused on three key areas: mental health services, academics, and leaves of absence.

We examined what mental health services are provided to students at Cornell, specifically professional help. This involves the Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), but it also involves a lot of other players including therapists and clinics in the Ithaca community. At Cornell, there has been an uptick not only in depression and anxiety but in help-seeking behavior. Both these things are causing CAPS to be overloaded regardless of how many qualified counselors they hire. We need to hire more counselors. We need to reduce the long wait times for therapy and psychiatry appointments. We want to make sure there is a strong system for referring students to therapists in the community. We need to ensure that students who require regular and constant help are getting it either at CAPS or in the community.

Another priority of our task force is the intersection of academics with mental health. We asked, “In what ways are academics either contributing to the mental health epidemic or supporting it?” We found that specific campus communities, or tracks, at Cornell are very stress-inducing. For example, cultures around engineering and architecture support students staying up past 2 a.m. to do work and destroy their bodies for the sake of their future careers. This is obviously not very conducive to a solid mental health foundation for any individual. We looked at measures such as the implementation of mandatory training for Resident Assistants, faculty, and staff that enables us to identify students in distress more quickly. We would like to see leeway given to struggling students, such as a check on their attendance even when they are unable to attend classes. We cannot have academics causing students to cascade into very stressful situations or even suicide.

The third priority is the university’s leave of absence policy, and whether it is conducive or not for students seeking leaves for mental health reasons. We would like to see the administration better supporting such leaves. We ask, “How can we align students with better support as they seek a leave of absence, when they are on leave, and when they are returning from a leave?”

The task force will host a community forum on Friday, October 19 from 5–7 p.m. in the Memorial Room of Willard Straight Hall. We will present our findings and recommendations, and solicit more student input as well as comments and suggestions from the Ithaca community. We seek a candid and open discussion about how student mental health can be improved.

Soon, following the input we receive at the forum, we will circulate our recommendations, invite signatures of support from students, faculty, staff, and others, and present them to the Cornell administration. Our message will be: “Here is what we found. How can we as students continue to work with you on this.” We don’t want it to necessarily be a bash of the administration. We want the recommendations to highlight the critical things that the administration is not doing or could do better, so that we can all work together to achieve the mental health goals we want to see in our community.

We applaud the administration’s recent announcement that it will pursue a “comprehensive review of student mental health.” We call on the administration to ensure that this review is independent, thorough, and transparent. There needs to be multi-stakeholder involvement, including administration, staff, faculty, and community members. And the independent review must include full student participation. We the students know what we need. We the students know what needs to be changed.

—By Matthew Jirsa

Matthew Jirsa ’19, a Biology and Society major in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences, is the co-chair with Joanna Hua of the student task force on mental health. He is also co-president of Cornell Minds Matter, and co-chair of Cornell Mental Health Awareness Week 2018.