Cornell Student Mental Health Updates

As the 2021-22 academic year begins, Cornell University reports that it continues to implement changes related to student mental health and wellbeing. In messages welcoming students back to campus, university administration leaders highlighted the virtues of kindness and self-care.

Willard Straight Hall, Cornell University

Cornell announced changes to the 49-year-old, student-led Empathy Assistance and Referral Service, known as EARS, citing recommendations made in Cornell’s 2020 Mental Health Review as well as an Office of Risk Management determination that peer counseling is not covered under the university’s general liability insurance.

Cornell unveiled a new model consisting of peer mentoring, training, and outreach in which EARS Peer Mentors, Empathy Chairs, and Liaisons will expand the organization’s outreach to Cornell undergraduate, graduate, and professional student communities. 

“The final report of the Mental Health Review underscores the need for significant culture change at Cornell,” Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being, told the Cornell Chronicle. “The new EARS model aims to expand outreach and social connection to students with diverse interests, backgrounds and identities, including those with identities that have been marginalized. It also offers concrete opportunities for student organizations to support campus-based student resilience, social connection and help-seeking efforts. This kind of active engagement is exactly what our campus needs at this time.”

Cornell’s Executive Accountability Committee (EAC) charged with implementing recommendations announced the launch of a new website as a centralized platform on resources for students, staff, faculty, and families who seek guidance on supporting students and their mental health needs. The EAC said that it would work with groups and teams across campus to expand the site’s content.

The EAC also announced the launch of a new web page to provide guidance to faculty, staff, and teaching assistants about how to support student mental health.

Other notable EAC updates about the implementation of student mental health recommendations:

—An advising working group was formed to address academic advising, clarifying the role of advisors across campus, training for advisors, implementing best practices, and assessing advising needs for vulnerable populations.

—A sub working group was formed to review the Student of Concern notification tool.

—The Graduate School is spearheading a Graduate Field Handbook for each field so that departments have documented, clear, and consistent standards for degree completion.

—A task force is being formed to develop a strategy for graduate students to provide feedback to be implemented by the end of fall 2021.

—A working group will create a document outlining mutual expectations between advisors and advisees.

—Training programs are being created to develop mentoring skills.

—The Student Evaluation of Teaching Committee is working on improvements to the course evaluation tool.

—Academic policies working groups are exploring possible changes:

  • Eliminating forced distribution grading (grading on a curve).
  • Instituting pass/fail (or S/U) grading for first semester, first-year students.
  • Limiting the number of credits that students may take each semester.
  • Prohibiting evening exams and improving exam scheduling to prevent students from having exam clusters.
  • Requiring faculty to make available to students during pre-enrollment certain components of course syllabi most important to students and feasible for faculty, such as information about course workload and assessments.
  • Expecting departments to identify key stressors in the student experience and strategies to mitigate them.

—Cornell’s director of Financial Aid and Student Employment will be required to include a focus on financial wellness.

—Cornell’s associate director of Student Employment will be required to include a focus on using student employment to create a sense of wellbeing, personal growth, and campus connection for students.

—Faculty have been sent reminders and/or suggestions to consider mental health and wellbeing in the classroom, including transparency of class policies and making syllabi available during pre-enrollment.

—A committee will be charged with examining and implementing recommendations related to undergraduate orientation for August 2022.

—Cornell Health initiated a work group to review patient advocacy policies and processes with the goal of making recommendations such as: staffing and representation, standardizing engagement with concerned parties and follow up with staff/supervisors, training for those in the role, and processes for identifying opportunities for system improvement.

—Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) updated training for staff and streamlined risk documentation in notes to continue to advance an evidenced-based approach for managing the care of individuals experiencing suicidality.

—CAPS integrated professional development trainings into monthly staff meetings and biannual retreats that have included risk management and documentation as well as multicultural competency.

“As we begin this new year together, I ask you each to chart your course with knowledge and with kindness,” President Martha E. Pollack told students on August 26. “Measure your progress both with the skills you build and the competence you gain—and with the connections and the respect and the kindness shared between yourself and your fellow travelers.”

Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, encouraged students to avoid comparing themselves to their peers, and to be patient and generous with others as well as themselves.

“We invite each of you to reflect and consider how your actions—as an individual or as a member of a group, department, team, college or organization—can support your own well-being and also help to advance positive culture change on campus,” the EAC said in a message to the Cornell community.

Donate to The Sophie Fund: Our 2021 Appeal

Please consider making a donation today to support The Sophie Fund’s work on mental health initiatives aiding young people in the Ithaca and Tompkins County communities. Sophie would have turned 29 this week, and we are marking the occasion to launch our 2021 fundraising campaign.

To Make a Donation:

Click Here for The Sophie Fund Donation Page

Current goals in need of funding:

—Organizing our 6th Annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest in October to raise awareness about mental health.

—Creating two sister websites to advocate for suicide prevention and student mental health in Tompkins County.

—Supporting teacher training, a forum for parents, and student activities for the prevention of bullying and cyberbullying.

—Hosting an expert briefing on the Zero Suicide Model for Tompkins County healthcare principals.

—Collaborating with student organizations to campaign against sexual assault on college campuses.

A few highlights of The Sophie Fund’s work since our last fundraising appeal in 2019:

Tompkins County Bullying Prevention Task Force. The Sophie Fund is a co-founder and the current co-coordinator of the task force to combat youth bullying; the initiative has included public forums on bullying, a Bullying Prevention Day rally with school children, information kits for school administrators on bullying prevention programs, and efforts to conduct surveys to assess the extent and nature of bullying issues among local youth.

Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition. After a period of dormancy during the Covid-19 pandemic, we collaborated with mental health leaders to resume the work of the coalition and joined the coalition’s work group on strategic planning.

Cornell University Student Mental Health Review. The Sophie Fund gave presentations in 2019 and 2020 on student mental health to review committees and another in 2021 to Cornell health administrators working on evaluating and implementing recommendations.

The Reflect Organization. The Sophie Fund in 2020 awarded a second grant to The Reflect Organization, a student group recognized by the Cornell administration for providing peer-to-peer mental health support through innovative campus events.

Advocacy Center of Tompkins County. We approved a grant in 2020 for a project aimed at addressing sexual assault on college campuses. The funds will enable the organization to provide training for the Enhanced Assess, Acknowledge, Act Sexual Violence Resistance Program (EAAA).

Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest. The Sophie Fund hosted the fourth annual contest in the Ithaca Commons in October 2019, and then successfully pivoted to an online version of the contest due to the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020. The contest brings together college and high school students, mental health providers, local businesses, and the general public to raise awareness about mental health.

Cupcake Button Fundraising Campaigns. We organized college and high school student groups to raise funds for local nonprofits who support youth mental health. The campaigns raised $664 in 2019 for the Advocacy Center, which fights sexual assault and domestic violence; and $1,018 in 2020 for the Village at Ithaca, which advocates for education equity for black, brown, low income, and other underrepresented and underserved populations.

Social Media Campaigns. We collaborated with the Tompkins County Youth Services Department on a social media campaign for bullying prevention; we worked with the Advocacy Center and IC Strike, an Ithaca College student group, on another social campaign against sexual assault.

Ithaca College Interns. The Sophie Fund hosted six interns from Ithaca College during the 2019-2020 and 2020-2021 academic years to write about mental health for our website: Meredith Nash, Hallie Ortiz, Anna Moura, Nicole Brokaw, Margaret Kent, and Lorelei Horrell.

Civic Ensemble. The Sophie Fund co-sponsored Delia Divided, a stage reading of a new play by Judy Tate exploring mental health in the criminal justice system and written with the collaboration of formerly incarcerated individuals in the Civic Ensemble‘s ReEntry Theatre Program.

Cornell Circle K. This student organization focused on community engagement organized a mental wellness kit fundraiser to support mental health in Ithaca and on the Cornell University campus and to benefit The Sophie Fund.

For more information about The Sophie Fund’s work, please visit:

Thank You!

Suicide Prevention Goals for Tompkins

The Sophie Fund on August 11 proposed five goals for consideration by the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition: implementation of the Zero Suicide Model for healthcare; lethal means reduction initiatives; and education and evidence-based clinical services for the youth/college-aged population, military veterans, and middle-aged men.

The goals are based on national data, available local data, anecdotal knowledge of Tompkins suicide trends, and goals put forth by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Project 2025, “1,700 Too Many: New York State’s Suicide Prevention Plan 2016-2017,” the U.S. “2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention,” and the 2021 “Surgeon General’s Call to Action to Implement the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention.” Updated and more detailed local data, when available, may inform a need for additional goals.

Baseline Data (per the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention):

  • Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in U.S.
  • The suicide rate between 2000 and 2016 increased from 10.4 to 13.5 per 100,000 (CDC).
  • 47,511 Americans died by suicide in 2019.
  • 1.38 million Americans attempted suicide in 2019.
  • 12 million Americans have serious thoughts of suicide.
  • Suicide rate is highest among white middle-aged men.
  • Firearms accounted for 50.39 percent of all suicide deaths in 2019.
  • Tompkins County data indicates 54 suicide deaths from 2017 to 2021; 87 percent of those who died by suicide were white and 20 percent were in the 20-29 age bracket (SPCNY).


Implementing the Zero Suicide Model Across All Healthcare Levels

“Zero Suicide models what it takes to make a system-wide, organizational commitment to safer suicide care. Zero Suicide is based on the realization that people experiencing suicidal thoughts and urges often fall through the cracks in a sometimes fragmented and distracted health care system. Studies have shown the vast majority of people who died by suicide saw a health care provider in the year prior to their deaths. There is an opportunity for health care systems to make a real difference by transforming how patients are screened and the care they receive.” — EDC

The Zero Suicide Model is a central strategy/goal of the National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, New York State’s Suicide Prevention Plan, and the Joint Commission’s National Patient Safety Goal for Suicide Prevention (NPSG) 15.01.01; it has also been adopted by the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition and the Tompkins County Legislature.

Suicide Prevention through Lethal Means Reduction Initiatives

Firearms accounted for 50.39 percent of all suicide deaths in 2019. Poisoning (e.g. via drugs) accounted for 12.9 percent of all suicide deaths in 2018.

“Many suicide attempts take place during a short-term crisis, so it is important to consider a person’s access to lethal means during these periods of increased risk. Access to lethal means is a risk factor for suicide. Reducing access to lethal means saves lives.” —SPRC

Suicide Prevention for the Youth/College-Aged Population through Education Initiatives, Evidence-Based Clinical Services, and School-Community Collaboration

Per 2010 census data, nearly 50 percent of Tompkins County residents are between the ages of 10-34. The median age is 31. In addition, there are 34,066 students enrolled in local colleges the vast majority of which fall into the 18-30 age bracket (Cornell 23,620; Ithaca College 5,400; Tompkins Cortland Community College 5,046).

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among young people aged 10-34 in the U.S. and in New York State; suicide surpassed homicide and malignant neoplasms as the second leading cause of death in the 10-24 age population in 2011.

48.2 percent of college students surveyed reported that academics have been “traumatic or very difficult to handle,” and 41.4 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function,” according to the 2018 National College Health Assessment; 11.3 percent seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, and 1.9 percent had attempted suicide.

35.8 percent of surveyed college students seeking counseling in the 2017-18 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide” (up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year), according to the Center for Collegiate Mental Health 2018 Annual Report; 10.3 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

“During the past decade, concerns about college student mental health have escalated nationwide. Surveys conducted at colleges and universities around the country show that students are experiencing greater distress, and demand for mental health services is increasing. Conservative estimates indicate that 20-35 percent of college students may face mental health challenges of varying severity during their years in college. The late teens and early twenties remain the critical age of onset for many mental health disorders. At the same time, more students are coming to Cornell with pre-existing mental health diagnoses, and there has been an increase in student distress related to local and national events, particularly for students of color. As stigma decreases, more students are seeking mental health care. In addition, generational research suggests that that the current college age population is more stressed and isolated, less likely to get enough sleep, and less independent—all factors that can impact their mental health.” 2020 Mental Health Review (Cornell University)

Suicide Prevention for Military Veterans through Outreach and Education Initiatives and Evidence-Based Clinical Services

Census data from 2010 indicates there are 3,952 veterans in Tompkins County, representing 4 percent of the population.

An estimated 30,177 veterans nationwide have died by suicide since the 9/11 attacks in 2001 led to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Another estimated 7,057 died by suicide while deployed. Four times as many troops and vets have died by suicide as in combat, powerfully illustrating the seriousness of the problem.

Moreover, a 2021 report now says that “increasing rates of suicide for both veterans and active duty personnel are outpacing those of the general population ― an alarming shift, as suicide rates among service members have historically been lower than suicide rates among the general population.”

Suicide Prevention for Middle-Aged Men through Education Initiatives and Evidence-Based Clinical ServicesThe suicide rate is highest among white middle-aged men. White males accounted for nearly 70 percent of all suicide deaths in 2019. Men died by suicide 3.63 times as often as women in 2019.