A Plan to Manage My College Mental Health

Last semester was the definition of rough. I faced consistent academic, social, and personal obstacles that I wasn’t at all prepared for. And the crazy part is, these stressors don’t even take into account the issues that I faced as a member of the Ithaca and Cornell University communities.

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Amber Haywood, chair of the Mental Health Summit at Cornell University

From the rumors of a potential school shooter on campus to an unfortunate death of a fellow student on graduation weekend, there was a lot to handle as a freshman. All these incidents took a toll mentally.

To cope with the chaos, I incorporated some mental health strategies into my life; and while some worked well, others ended up hurting me in the long run. Here are few of the methods that worked well for me:

  • Exercise! My personal favorites are group fitness classes (try spinning!). While I’m not always excited to work out, I learned that exercising indeed releases endorphins, which reduces your perception of pain and triggers a positive feeling in the body.
  • Social Media Cleanse! After not having access to wifi or phone service for a portion of winter break, I realized how much time I spent on social media. The time that I was on social media could easily have been devoted to something more important and useful to me. Not to mention, that by spending so much time on social media, I was comparing myself to students, friends, and people I didn’t even know that well. All these toxic thoughts of comparison were weighing on me more than I even realized. After deleting social media completely, I found that I was able to concentrate more time on homework and, consequently, saw my academics improve significantly. I realize that this is a difficult task for some, so an easier alternative is to limit yourself to a singular social media platform, or to limit the amount of time you spend on social media (e.g. only giving yourself two hours a day on it, or not checking social media an hour before you go to sleep/after you wake up).
  • Schedule “Me” Time! Blocking out specific times for relaxing, Netflixing, reading for pleasure, etc. Scheduling time in for self care helps make you more accountable for actually practicing regular self care! I personally block out an hour, normally when I know I get tired. Trying out different times and knowing your body rhythm will help when you feel yourself running low on energy!
  • Getting Away From Campus! This may be the hardest one physically and financially, but for me, it’s the most rewarding. Seeing new sites and being in a different setting has renewing effects on the mind. This can be catching a fan bus to a football game in Philly, taking a road trip to the nearest Chick-fil-A or even finding a new hiking trail around Ithaca!

I’ve developed many techniques for improving mental health due to my involvement in Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.), a Cornell student organization. Come share your mental health practices, while learning from others, at B.O.S.S.’s annual Mental Health Summit taking place at Cornell from November 9–11. The summit is free and open to any self-identifying womyn of color.

The keynote address is by Dior Vargas, the Latina feminist mental health activist and creator of the People of Color and Mental Illness Photo Project. Workshops will tackle subjects including relationships, depression, body image, and communicating with professionals and family about mental health issues.

Click here for more information about the summit and how to register. Click here for more information about the summit and how to register.

–By Amber Haywood

Amber Haywood ’21 is the chair of the Mental Health Summit hosted by Building Ourselves through Sisterhood and Service (B.O.S.S.) at Cornell University from November 9–11

Cornell Task Force Demands “Gold Standard” for Student Mental Health

The student-run Cornell Mental Health Task Force has issued a set of recommendations for immediate steps to improve the campus climate and services for mental health, and called on the university administration to ensure that an upcoming comprehensive review of student mental health is “independent, thorough, and transparent,” and involves “full student participation.”

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Statue of Ezra Cornell in the Arts Quad

The recommendations addressed to the Cornell administration proposed three immediate initiatives to be carried out in two phases, covering improvements in student mental health services, mental health education and collaboration within the Cornell community, and academic policies and practices that impact student mental health.

The task force also called for the creation of “an official Standing Committee on Mental Health,” comprised of task force members and other students, “tasked with overseeing ongoing implementation of best practices for student mental health, reviews, and serving as a liaison between students and their needs and the administration.”

The task force, co-chaired by Matthew Jirsa ’19 and Joanna Hua ’20 and consisting of more than 20 students, issued the recommendations earlier this week after a six-month study and following an October 19 public forum where draft recommendations were presented and discussed.

Specific recommendations of the task force included:

Hiring more psychological counselors to accommodate rising numbers of students seeking services; reducing wait times for counseling appointments; requiring counselors to undergo diversity training; improving access to off-campus psychological services; requiring mandatory suicide prevention training for Resident Advisors; requiring mandatory mental health training and an accountability system for faculty; introducing a standardized grading system to reduce academic stress; creating a student mental health advocate; providing support to students at every stage of the process for taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons.

In its letter, the task force said it sought to collaborate with the administration “to mutually work towards profound change, with the ultimate end of making Cornell a standout institution where mental health is holistically and completely championed, academically, clinically, and culturally.”

The task force applauded recent announcements by President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi that the administration intends to launch a “comprehensive” review of student mental health. The task force added: “We call on the administration to ensure that this review is independent, thorough, and transparent, includes full student participation, and strives to become a ‘gold standard’ for addressing mental health on the college level to which other universities can look for guidance.”

The task force commended many aspects of Cornell’s current mental health efforts, noting the hiring of additional Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselors, the recent formation of a broad-based campus Coalition on Mental Health, and ongoing support for peer-to-peer programs aimed at reducing stress. “These measures are a fantastic start, but with high wait times [for CAPS appointments] and recent incidents of suicide attempts, we are far from where we need to be,” the task force said.

The task force said that Cornell’s “Ivy-League culture of hyper-competition and ‘stress Olympics’ is centered in the middle of a rural health system—a situation that creates a high demand for mental health services despite rural issues of lower mental health professional supply.” It cited Cornell Pulse data indicating that four of 10 undergraduates surveyed were “unable to function academically for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety” and that 12 percent of surveyed Cornell students had seriously considered suicide within the past year.

A summary of the Cornell Mental Health Task Force key recommendations:

Mental Health Services

—Develop a system of intaking students that is more efficient, shortening wait times and improving access while also ensuring quality of care.

—Pledge to hire new counselors in the event that the number of students seeking CAPS services continues to rise in the coming semesters/years.

—Seek input from the student body concerning whether or not the current counselors are diverse and adequately understand a broad range of mental health concerns.

—Require all counselors to obtain a baseline of diversity training in order to accommodate for the diversity and intersectionality of mental health concerns.

—Share estimated wait times for appointments with counselors on the Cornell Health website for transparency.

—Create a mechanism for anonymous referrals of persons in distress to mental health resources before extreme actions such as calling the police.

—Establish a clear and straightforward method for switching counselors within Cornell Health if requested.

—Create of a page on the Cornell Health website that addresses considerations that are made when matching patients with counselors, clearly outlines the process for switching to a new counselor, and lists resources for students who are unhappy with their care (i.e. patient advocates).

—Allow students to state their counselor preferences (demographic, personality type, etc.) during the 15-minute phone screening and accommodate their requests.

—Create an anonymous outlet for students to voice complaints about their counselor to be utilized in counselor training.

—Enable students to change counselors by speaking with a receptionist or patient advocate, or by sending an email to their counselor.

—Create an Off-Campus Therapy Referral Network to sustain relationships with therapists in the Ithaca community.

—Provide an easily accessible list of off-campus therapists accepting Cornell students and accepting the Student Health Plan including those willing to offer prorated/discounted prices.

 

Mental Health Education and Collaboration

—Create a mental health program for Residential Advisors covering mental illnesses and substance abuse and including mandatory QPR suicide prevention training.

—Provide basic mental health information and learning to incoming freshmen while underscoring support from various communities at Cornell.

—Create a Standing Committee on Mental Health that helps implement initiatives and objectives, and serves as a liaison between students and administrators about mental health services and concerns.

—Establish mental health training for all faculty and staff members, and advisors/administrators, including concise mandatory manuals and training programs.

—Establish a system of accountability for professors to be more cognizant and understanding of mental health issues among students.

 

Academic Policies and Mental Health

—Appointment of a Mental Health Advocate who can represent students in academic settings where mental health is a factor in academic success or stress.

—Present students with their rights and when necessary have the Mental Health Advocate serve as a facilitator between students and professors.

—Ensure that professors understand mental health complexities and accommodate students as needed.

—Implement a standardized and transparent grading scheme as a method of course stress reduction.

—Provide housing aid to students taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons who don’t have supportive households to return to.

—Provide a system of support and contact for students at every stage of the leave of absence process.

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.

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

World of a Campus Mental Health Advocate

Zoe Howland was a half hour into her day at the national headquarters of Active Minds when she got a call from the Washington Post. The reporter was seeking comment about a new study documenting the positive impact of the organization on student mental health on college campuses across the country. Howland, a summer intern, was the perfect spokesperson.

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Zoe Howland

Howland is a senior at Ithaca College and the co-president of IC’s Active Minds chapter. She signed up as a member of the student organization in her freshman year, and now helps lead its campaigns to fight the stigma around mental illness and its education programs about mental health for the campus community. The IC chapter has several dozen members; Mikaela Vojnik serves as co-president.

“I love being a voice in student mental health, and I feel like the position of president of Active Minds really does help me do that,” Howland, who is double majoring in Sociology and in Culture and Communication and minoring in Women’s and Gender Studies, said in a recent interview.

One of the projects that Howland is helping oversee is “Send Silence Packing,” a traveling installation of 1,100 backpacks representing the number of college students who die by suicide each year. The day-long exhibition will be held in the IC quad, with the aim of provoking discussion and raising awareness about mental health, promoting suicide prevention, and connecting students to mental health resources. The Sophie Fund is a sponsor of the event.

Howland said that Active Minds also plans to continue building on the Speak Your Mind (SYM) panels, which are designed to reduce stigma through storytelling. Students who have gone through Active Minds training visit classes, share their experiences about mental health and mental illness, and participate in question-answer sessions with the students. This year, Howland seeks to expand SYM’s reach to places like the Business and Music schools. “It would be nice to branch out a little bit and get panels in classes that don’t focus on that in their content,” she explained.

Howland’s summer internship at Active Minds headquarters in Washington, D.C. fostered an even closer relationship for IC’s Active Minds chapter. “I got to work with the chapter coordinator, so I did a lot of corresponding with new and developing chapters to try and get their chapter off the ground,” she said. “I got to talk to people who were really passionate about mental health and just wanted help bringing it to their campus, and I got to see the behind-the-scenes of such a cool nonprofit.”

Howland also serves on the national Active Minds Student Advisory Committee, comprised of students from chapters across the country who contribute local perspectives.

Over the course of Howland’s college career, she has widened her own perspective on mental health. Her courses in Sociology and Culture and Communication studies have offered new lenses for her thinking. Where Sociology has allowed her to consider societal views on mental health and treatment, Culture and Communication studies has encouraged her to investigate how the ways we choose to talk about mental health shape our perceptions and ultimately our attitudes toward stigmas.

Advocacy through Active Minds, education in the classroom, and her personal experience have all played a part in Howland’s comprehensive outlook on mental health. And though she’s dedicated plenty of thought to the topic, she goes on to say, “But of course I’m always learning. There’s always more information to find and more articles to read.”

Over time, Howland has come to discover at the heart of her mental health philosophy is talking, sharing stories, and diminishing stereotypes. “I think you gain a lot of really valuable knowledge,” she explained. “Just getting to know people and their stories gives you a broader base to base your assumptions and knowledge when you’re talking to someone else about it.”

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Active Minds national Student Advisory Committee

Howland has made no concrete plans for her future, but she is definitely interested in pursuing work in mental health after graduation next spring. She credits Active Minds for shaping so much of her college experience, both in and out of the classroom. “I think that it really ignited a passion in me that didn’t really exist before which has definitely shaped what I want to do with my life,” she said.

For now, Howland will focus her energy on writing her senior thesis on the topic of—you guessed it—mental health. “My thesis will be about how people talk about mental health on a day-to-day basis, how people trivialize mental health while also stigmatizing it,” she explained. Clearly, Zoe Howland has much to teach us, for a long time to come.

—By Margaret McKinnis

Margaret McKinnis, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a junior at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in English and Honors. She is a nonfiction editor at Stillwater, a student literary magazine, and an assistant director of the New Voices Literary Festival.