Aiming for a Student Mental Health “Gold Standard” at Cornell

The Sophie Fund’s co-founders, saying that they are encouraged by Cornell University’s launch of a comprehensive review of student mental health policies and practices, called on the review teams to set the ambitious goal of creating a gold standard for collegiate mental health.

IMG_3694

100-year-old statue of Cornell founder Ezra Cornell in the Arts Quad

Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, who created The Sophie Fund in 2016 as a mental health advocacy group after the suicide death of their daughter Sophie during a health leave of absence from Cornell, made the statement in a 25-page presentation on August 23 to the two review teams containing their personal perspectives and main concerns. The review is taking place during the 2019-2020 academic year.

“At times, we have expressed frustration over delays in launching Cornell’s comprehensive review,” they wrote. “But it is important now to look forward and help ensure that it brings about the greatest possible support for student mental health.” The Sophie Fund founders said they “are encouraged by Cornell Health Executive Director Kent Bullis’s commitment to creating a ‘healthier and more supportive campus environment with improved support resources and clinical services for our students.’” MacLeod and Hack wrote to President Martha E. Pollack in April 2017 asking for an independent, external-led task force of experts to assess the university’s approach to student mental health and make recommendations for improvements.

Click here to download The Sophie Fund’s “Perspectives on Student Mental Health at Cornell University: A Presentation to the Mental Health Review Committee and the External Review Team.”

Highlights:

Scope of the Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health

We encourage the review teams to set the ambitious goal of producing a model package of findings and recommendations enabling Cornell to establish a gold standard for collegiate mental health.

Cornell University’s Institutional Mindset

We encourage the review teams to review prevailing attitudes toward student mental health in the university’s leadership echelons; and consider recommendations for changes in institutional mindset and leadership culture as a necessary prerequisite for effectively addressing student mental health challenges.

Campus Climate and Institutional Accountability

We encourage the review teams to review the broad cross-campus framework for supporting student mental health and wellness, and consider recommendations for 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.

Cornell University Student Mental Health Policies

We encourage the review teams to inform their findings and recommendations with a review of all current Cornell policies related to or affecting student mental health.

Cornell University Budgetary Resources

We encourage the review teams to review how university resources are allocated for student mental health; to explore potential new sources of funding; and consider budgetary recommendations based on what is needed to fully implement best practices.

Student Mental Health Data

We encourage the review teams to inform their findings and recommendations with a review of key data providing insights into the prevalence of mental health challenges and the means utilized to address them.

Cornell University Student Input

We encourage the review teams to actively seek and receive maximum input from students in order to fully understand the mental health challenges students face, which include seeking and receiving psychological counseling, navigating academic pressures that exacerbate mental disorders, and taking leaves of absence due to mental health crises; and consider recommendations strongly informed by student input.

Clinical Best Practices

We encourage the review teams to review the mental health policies, programs, and practices at Cornell Health and the Counseling and Psychological Services unit, and consider recommendations that ensure alignment with current best practices.

Mental Health Leaves of Absence

We encourage the review teams to review the university’s policies, programs, and practices for mental health leaves of absence; and consider recommendations for better supporting students in the process as they consider, take, and return from leaves.

Ithaca Community Resources

We encourage the review teams to undertake a review, including substantive discussions with Ithaca community stakeholders, of the practice of referring students to community service providers; and consider recommendations that better safeguard the mental health interests of students as well as community members.

Trauma at Cornell University

We encourage the review teams to review the prevalence of student sexual assault and hazing, the mental health consequences for victims, and the practices in place to address the problems and support the victims; and consider recommendations seeking an end to the cycle of student-inflicted trauma and ensuring maximum support for victims.

Alcohol and Other Drugs

We encourage the review teams to review the university’s Alcohol and Other Drug policies, programs, and practices; and consider recommendations for enhancing prevention and intervention strategies, treatment, and recovery support.

Prevention and Early Intervention, and Crisis Intervention

We encourage the review teams to review the university’s policies, programs, and practices for creating a safe community; preventing student suicides; supporting at-risk populations; and aiding students in crisis; and consider recommendations for improvements.

Mental Health Education

We encourage the review teams to review policies, programs, and practices for communicating knowledge and tools on mental health and fighting stigma; and consider recommendations for improvement.

          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Are you a Cornell student or a member of the Ithaca community? You may provide your comments and ideas to the review teams by emailing the Mental Health Review Committee (MHRC) at this address: mhrc@cornell.edu.

The heads of the Mental Health Review teams are:

External Review Team:

Michael Hogan, consultant at Hogan Health Associates

Mental Health Review Committee:

Marla Love, senior associate dean of students in the Office of the Dean of Students, Student and Campus Life

Miranda Swanson, associate dean for Student Services in Cornell Engineering

Cornell will soon be publishing an online survey about student mental health available here.

 See also:

Launching Cornell’s Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health

 

 

Launching Cornell’s Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health

In the six years that I’ve been at Cornell University, we have seen an unprecedented growth in the need for campus mental health services. While the Cornell administration has been extremely generous in increasing our clinical resources in recent years, it remains a challenge to keep pace with the growing need for care. And we’re not alone: universities across the country are struggling with similar challenges.

hogan2

Michael Hogan, leader of External Review Team

Beginning in 2018, I was part of many campus conversations—with students, colleagues, and campus leaders, including President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi—about the need to find new ways to engage our community in addressing the environmental factors contributing to student distress, and to seek new perspectives on the services and resources available to students on campus.

In September 2018, these conversations and others led President Pollack to commit the university to a Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health, to begin in 2019.

The Campus Health Executive Committee (CHEC) oversaw the development of the review’s scope and planning during the Fall 2018 semester. Feedback was solicited from a wide range of student, staff, and faculty stakeholders, including members of the university-wide Coalition on Mental Health. The consensus was that the comprehensive review should focus on two themes: how to meet the growing clinical needs of students facing mental health problems, and how to improve the campus environment and culture to better support student mental health.

In Spring 2019, CHEC announced the members of the two groups charged with conducting the review: an internal university Mental Health Review Committee tasked with examining Cornell’s academic and social environment, climate, and culture related to mental health, and an External Review Team responsible for reviewing the university’s clinical services and campus-based strategies.

The internal committee, made up of 13 students, faculty, and staff, is led by Marla Love, senior associate dean of students in the Office of the Dean of Students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for Student Services in the College of Engineering.  Love and Swanson are seasoned student affairs professionals who are relatively new to Cornell, bringing a fresh perspective to the review process. Love joined Cornell in October 2017 after serving for 15 years at various institutions across the country including Scripps College and Phillips (Andover) Academy, and most recently at Azusa Pacific University. Swanson came to Cornell in December 2017 from the University of Chicago, where she spent 16 years as dean of students in the Physical Sciences Division and working with graduate students in the Humanities Division.

Members of the internal team include Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, mental health promotion program director for Cornell Health’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives; among the four students in the group is Chelsea Kiely ‘20, of the College of Arts and Sciences, who is president of Cornell Minds Matter, a student mental health promotion organization.

The External Review Team, comprised of three highly respected leaders in the field of mental health, is led by Michael Hogan, who served as mental health commissioner in New York, Connecticut, and Ohio over a span of 25 years. He is a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s executive committee, and was a developer of the Zero Suicide Model for healthcare. Hogan chaired President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and has served on the board of the Joint Commission, an independent organization that accredits healthcare organizations and programs in the United States.

The other members of the external team are Karen Singleton, associate medical director and chief of Mental Health and Counseling Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Medical; and Henry Chung, senior medical director of Behavioral Health Integration Strategy at the Care Management Organization of Montefiore Health System, and professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Listening tours and focus groups will be held through the Fall 2019 semester, and the final report of findings and recommendations will be submitted in Spring 2020. Updates about the reviewers’ process and progress—in addition to the final report—will be posted on the Mental Health Review website.

I have also asked the members of both review teams to provide ongoing feedback to Cornell’s leadership as the review proceeds, including recommendations specific to our work at Cornell Health.

It is important for the Cornell community to note that we will not be waiting for the completion of the review to begin implementing important changes to our clinical services. A new counseling appointment model—which will include brief same-day appointments, and more options for follow-up care—will begin in Fall 2019. We look forward to the opportunity to gain valuable feedback and to identify opportunities for improvement.

I am grateful to President Pollack and Vice President Lombardi for prioritizing this university-wide review in support of student campus health. And I am confident that the review will result in a healthier and more supportive campus environment with improved support resources and clinical services for our students.

—By Kent Bullis

Kent Bullis, MD, is the executive director of Cornell Health

Photo credit: Suicide Prevention Resource Center (video screenshot)

Winnie, We’ll Miss You!

There’s a Cornell University student who Ithaca will dearly miss when she leaves town and goes out to make the rest of the world a better place. Her name is Winnie Ho.

PSX_20190526_182814

Winnie Ho at Cornell University’s 2019 graduation ceremonies

Since arriving from Syosset, Long Island, in 2016, Ho, 22, has worked on the ground with countless community organizations on issues such as mental health, suicide prevention, homelessness, substance use, and science education. She has served as a volunteer with multiple organizations, spearheaded numerous fundraisers and events, and supported students pursuing community engagement as an Engaged Ambassador with the Office of Engagement Initiatives. She has co-delivered the keynote speech at the “2019 What’s Great in Our State” mental health conference hosted by the New York State Office of Mental Health.

We are very grateful for Ho’s indispensable contributions to The Sophie Fund. For example, in her role as vice president of Service and then president of the Alpha Phi Omega (APO) Gamma Chapter, Ho marshaled volunteers from APO as well as numerous other student groups to support The Sophie Fund’s annual cupcake contest and related fundraising.

Besides helping run the mid-October event in the Ithaca Commons, Ho’s army of good Samaritans collected monies that The Sophie Fund passed on to local mental health organizations—more than $500 donated to the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in 2017, and $1,300 to the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County in 2018. Ho has also served as a member of The Sophie Fund’s Student Advisory Group, offering endless perspectives and advice on everything the organization does.

The Sophie Fund was proud to learn that Ho was selected to receive The Cornell Tradition Senior Recognition Award at her graduation ceremonies last month. Cornell honored Ho for her many contributions to community service during her undergraduate years. In conjunction with the award, Ho generously donated a $500.00 honorarium to The Sophie Fund.

Ho was a double major in Biological Sciences (Neurobiology) and Sociology in Cornell’s College of Arts and Sciences; she minored in Inequality Studies and Global Health. For the next two years, she will be pursuing pharmaceutical drug policy research with the Division of Pharmacoepidemiology and Pharmacoeconomics at the Harvard University-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, with plans of continuing her advocacy and activism in health inequality everywhere. She hopes to one day pursue a career that combines her passion for service, social justice, and medicine.

Due to her work with Ithaca’s community organizations, Ho will move on not just with a Cornell degree but a profound appreciation for the importance of helping others—and ourselves—when it comes to mental health.

Ho puts it best herself:

“As I look to what lies beyond the ivory tower and beyond Ithaca, I reflect on my experiences here, and realize that one of the most important lessons I learned during my time here is that we all have mental health, and that it is absolutely critical to take care of oneself in the process of chasing our dreams. APO gave me a home like no other to pursue service in the company of the most kindhearted and loving individuals I’ve ever met, and I am so proud to call my fellow peers some of the most devoted advocates and volunteers for mental health I’ve ever seen.

“Change begins when we are willing to support ourselves and those around us. Service to mental health starts by choosing kindness and understanding. Not all big change comes in the form of huge events or big fundraisers or legislation (though these are all critically important). The biggest changes that have occurred during my time here have been the result of everyday people choosing to ask those around them how they are doing as opposed to what they are doing. Mental health intersects with every single aspect of our lives. Whatever comes next, we always have the choice to care for ourselves and each other.”

—By Scott MacLeod

Scott MacLeod is a co-founder of The Sophie Fund

Mental Health and People of Color

The BOLD Women’s Leadership Network was founded by Ithaca College’s president, Shirley M. Collado. It is an initiative developed for young women underrepresented in higher education and passionate about social justice issues. The nine women chosen as Ithaca College BOLD Scholars for the 2018–19 academic year designed a program called Engaging Mental Health for People of Color (EMPOC).

bold (1)

BOLD Scholars with Ithaca College President Shirley M. Collado (second from right)

Ithaca College’s first-ever BOLD cohort collectively chose to create EMPOC with the mission of creating a physical space for people of color on campus to de-stress and that provides comfort in discussing stigmas of mental health.

Mental health for people of color has become a popular topic throughout the media and within various communities of marginalized groups. This topic has a different affect on people of color because they experience racialized economic and social barriers that result in lack of resources and support of mental health.

For minority groups, mental health correlates with systems of oppression and that is why it is such a difficult conversation to have with family, friends, or even institutions. BOLD Scholars recently organized introductory discussions on mental health facilitated by an Ithaca College alumna, Rita Bunata—a social media event on self-care, pop-up de-stress events, and an R&B yoga night. They also co-facilitated a discussion on sexual assault and healing with Stephanie Nevels, a counselor at Ithaca College, and organized a showcase for art by people of color,

At the weekly meetings, BOLD Scholars discuss and organize every event as ways to shift the conversation to be inclusive of underrepresented individuals and focus on creating a space to serve the mental health needs of people of color. As the cohort includes women of all backgrounds, they collectively discuss the importance of education on this topic by creating things like fliers with information on mental health and others specifically for allies who are not people of color.

“We need to be able to talk about specifically through a racialized lens, what mental health looks like for people of color,” said Belisa Gonzalez, director of the Center of Culture, Race, & Ethnicity at Ithaca College and the BOLD Scholars faculty mentor.

For programs like EMPOC, it is difficult to know exactly how effective the conversation is or be able to know about positive outcomes from these events. Gonzalez describes this as a lingering question: “How do you measure changing the hearts and minds of people?” The very first event organized by EMPOC was facilitated by Tynesha Wright-Lindo, a clinical social worker at Cornell University, which received a large audience and effective feedback, as students felt, “This is what I needed.”

EMPOC will carry on as an Ithaca Collge student organization in its own right once the current cohort of BOLD Scholars graduate. Chasia Bambo, a BOLD scholar majoring in Biology and Accounting, hopes that the future of the program will “become less known as a project for women of color and more for people of color,” encourage more men of color to participate in events, and “to delve into the different issues that can impact the wide range of people of color.”

—By Chanelle Ferguson

Chanelle Ferguson, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a sophomore Bridge Up Scholar at Ithaca College majoring in Writing and minoring in Journalism and African Diaspora. She is a writer at IC View, Ithaca College’s alumni magazine, and a student assistant at Career Services.

Art Therapy

Alex sits across from her therapist, tapping her foot anxiously on the floor, not speaking. Her therapist looks empathetically at her, and asks if she could possibly describe her feelings at the moment. Alex keeps her eyes on the floor, and shifts her position uncomfortably. The therapist wonders if she can recount her experience reconnecting with home friends with whom she shared a traumatic middle school experience. Finally, Alex looks up and begins to tell her story.

cast

Cast of alex getting better

Alex is the main character of alex getting better, a play written by 21-year-old Audrey Lang, a junior theater studies major at Ithaca College. The play was performed last fall in The Dillingham Center, home of Ithaca College’s theater program. Throughout the play, Alex, a college student, begins to work through and come to terms with being a young woman who was a victim of sexual assault in middle school. She had not thought about this traumatic episode in her life for a long while. She chose to bury the memory of a boy she had once been friends with and who had touched her and her friends in a way that was unwanted and inappropriate.

Lang portrays the diverse approaches that victims of sexual assault can take toward healing. Some of Alex’s friends had repressed the memories and remained friends with the assailant; others had forgiven, and moved on. Throughout the play, the feelings of shame, discomfort, and paranoia are visceral and perturbing as we watch Alex striving to work through her fears, accept the trauma, and learn to let go.

In the Fall 2018 semester, Lang wrote a 10-minute play for a theater class, which served as the backbone for alex getting better. She based the story loosely on trauma she had experienced in her own life, while asserting creative control in the play when necessary. Lang found the content to be relevant, informative, and universal, as she has known many women and girls who have dealt with similar forms of assault.

Because the play dealt with intimate, triggering, and vulnerable content, Lang made sure that she and the cast and crew members felt safe to voice their own personal stories during the time they were delving into Alex’s journey of recovery. “I chose to work with all females,” said Lang. “There was an all-female cast as well as an all-female rehearsal room. These events are so deeply related to things women and girls are dealing with. But, I wanted the play to be seen by people of all ages and genders.”

This performance not only gave Lang a platform to voice a traumatic event that happened to her depicted through her play, but it also gave the cast members a chance to empathize and vocalize similar occurrences that happened in their lives. This presents significant benefits of theater; the community and support that the participants in the play receive, as well as the chance for the playwright themselves to share and perform experiences for an audience to empathize with.

Lang has been a writer for as long as she can remember. In 2016, prior to alex getting better, Lang wrote another play about issues young women face, Dear Anna, which was performed with MCC Youth Company’s FreshPlay Festival and with the Ithaca Theater Collective. “I always loved writing,” said Lang, “but I was always mostly interested in dialogue and human interactions. Theater can bring life to stories in a way that feels more real because you are actually seeing the bodies.”

Rather than solely working through her struggles and experiences on her own, Lang and many other playwrights who create plays about mental illness or sexual assault work through their pain with a medium that enables others to be fully present with them when they are most afraid and vulnerable. This advocacy work is personal and intimate but the themes and issues addressed are universal. Lang chooses to write her plays about marginalized groups to give these people a platform to share their stories. “Typically, my plays are about women,” she said. “Especially queer women. I try to show them in places of strength and complication.”

lang

Audrey Lang

In theater, the audience can become engrossed with the story in a way that can indulge most of their senses, while also having a space where one is allowed to become emotional and vulnerable. “Theater should be educational and entertaining,” said Carin Etsy, an Ithaca College senior who directed alex getting better and is also a playwright who has written autobiographical pieces about sexual assault. “It forces you to be more engaged because, unlike watching a movie or reading a book, you can’t just leave. Theater is a continuous act; you have to sit there and be faced with another’s experiences and emotions.”

—By Nicole Kramer

Nicole Kramer, an intern at The Sophie Fund, is a senior Writing major and Sociology minor at Ithaca College. She is a nonfiction editor for Stillwatera student-run literary magazine. She also enjoys creating mixed media image-text work and writing poetry.