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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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.”
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.