Commending Cornell’s Mental Health Recommendations

The Sophie Fund, in a presentation to Cornell University on March 1, supported the Cornell Mental Health Review’s recommendations for addressing student mental health and commended Cornell administrators for launching a process to implement them.

Download: Cornell University’s Mental Health Review Final Report

The Mental Health Review, initiated by President Martha E. Pollack in 2018, and carried out by internal and external review teams, made 60 recommendations comprehensively calling for improvements in mental health and medical services, academic life, student well-being, and mental health awareness and proactive support.

The Cornell administration released the review’s 34-page Final Report in October; at the same time, it announced the creation of an Executive Accountability Committee led by senior academic officials as well as senior administrators overseeing Student & Campus Life and Cornell Health to evaluate and implement the recommendations.

“We commend the mental health review teams for recognizing the seriousness of the challenge and, through extensive research and analysis, providing valuable detailed recommendations to comprehensively address it,” Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, co-founders of The Sophie Fund, said in a written presentation to the Executive Accountability Committee. “We wholeheartedly support the Final Report’s recommendations. The Final Report provides the road map for Cornell to establish a gold standard for collegiate mental health.”

MacLeod and Hack, who established the nonprofit advocacy group in 2016 after the suicide death of their daughter Sophie, who was on a health leave of absence from the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning, thanked Pollack and Vice President for Student & Campus Life Ryan Lombardi for “recognizing the need for continuous attention to student mental health.” They also thanked undergraduate and graduate student organizations who sought change for “representing the voices of Cornell students and especially those in need of mental health support.”

The Sophie Fund presentation agreed with the Final Report’s call for “an enhanced version of excellence, which has as its foundation a healthy educational environment” and with recommendations for academic policies and practices, faculty and staff training and resources, campus collaboration, and communication.

The presentation said that “these recommendations recognize that 1) supporting student mental health requires the coordinated involvement and commitment of administrators, faculty, staff, and students across the schools and the campus; 2) it is a false premise to expect Cornell Health/Counseling and Psychological Services alone to shoulder the responsibility for student mental health; 3) schools and departments must support student mental health through practices that foster community, eliminate undue academic stress, discourage unhealthy competition, and support struggling students; and 4) effective student mental health support today requires a culture change with strong institutional leadership and structured cross-campus collaboration.”

The presentation highlighted 13 priority areas for action as the Executive Accountability Committee considers the Final Report’s recommendations, stressing the need to emphasize “providing real tools, ensuring their actual use, setting concrete goals, and measuring the outcomes and impact.”

“An all-faculty email stressing the value of student mental health gatekeeping may check a box, but it would likely have little, if any, tangible effect,” the presentation said. “Similarly, offering mental health gatekeeper training for faculty would be an excellent step, but it would be meaningless if nobody signed up for it.”

The presentation called on Cornell to ensure “strong leadership and direction from the senior administration to marshal the human effort and financial resources needed to implement improvements and ultimately achieve culture change.” MacLeod and Hack commended Cornell for “quickly establishing” the Executive Accountability Committee to drive improvements.

The Sophie Fund suggested creating a student advocacy office “dedicated to helping students navigate specific institutional challenges and obstacles in academic practices and mental health services, including the Health Leave of Absence process and insurance barriers, that may negatively impact or further undermine their mental health, spoil their positive college experience, and threaten their trajectories into fulfilling adult lives.”

The presentation also stressed the need for new zero-tolerance university regulations and new campus education and awareness programs with the publicly stated goal of terminating the “stubborn normalization” of sexual assault and hazing violence among Cornell students.

Other priority areas cited in The Sophie Fund’s presentation: mandatory training for faculty, staff, and students in ways to identify and help students in need of mental health support; academic policies affecting undergraduate and graduate student wellbeing; clinical best practices; referrals to community mental health providers; health leaves of absence; suicide prevention; healthy campus community life; mental health communications and education; student organizations; and the role of parents and families.

The Final Report cited Cornell PULSE/CUE surveys indicating that the proportion of Cornell undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically—missing classes, unable to study or complete homework, etc.—for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. From Fall 2015 to Fall 2018, individual therapy encounters at CAPS increased 19 percent, the report added.

The 13-member internal Mental Health Review Committee, which included five students, was headed by Marla Love, currently interim dean of students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for student services in the College of Engineering. The External Review Team consisted of Michael Hogan, a former commissioner of mental health for New York State, Ohio, and Connecticut (chair); Karen Singleton, chief of Mental Health and Counseling Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Medical; and Henry Chung, senior medical director of care management organization at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.

Click here to read or download The Sophie Fund’s “Perspectives on the Mental Health Review Final Report” presented to the Cornell Executive Accountability Committee on March 1, 2021