Cornell’s Student Mental Health Review: “Disappointing”

In a letter emailed to Cornell University students on March 20, Ryan Lombardi, vice president for Student and Campus Life, announced long-awaited plans for a “comprehensive review” of student mental health.

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We support all steps to improve student mental health. We sincerely hope these plans will produce significant improvements. But it is with regret that we must express our disappointment with Vice President Lombardi’s announcement.

Nearly two years ago, after looking closely at student mental health policies and practices across the nation as well as at Cornell, we wrote to President Martha E. Pollack to respectfully seek a robust, independent, external-led review of the mental health challenges facing Cornell’s students as well as the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them.

We wrote that we had observed systemic failure in Cornell mental health policy and practice, topped by a failure by Cornell administrators “to fully and openly recognize the magnitude of the mental health challenges facing Cornell, and to address them with best practices backed by human and financial resources commensurate to the scale.”

Our concerns are based partly on Cornell’s own data. The 2017 Cornell PULSE Survey of 5,001 undergraduates reported that 71.6 percent of respondents often or very often felt “overwhelmed,” and 42.9 percent said that they had been unable to function academically for at least a week on one or more occasions due to depression, stress, or anxiety. Nearly 10 percent of respondents reported being unable to function during a week-long period on five or more occasions. Nine percent of the respondents—about 450 students—reported “having seriously considered suicide at least once during the last year,” and about 85 students reported having actually attempted suicide at least once in the last year.

Vice President Lombardi’s announcement falls very short of what is needed to address Cornell’s mental health crisis and of what the Cornell administration promised when President Pollack announced the decision last September to conduct a review.

In brief, Vice President Lombardi’s announcement said that the review will be handled by two separate entities. One is an “external review team” to look at clinical mental health services—Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS). The other is a “university committee” comprised of students, faculty and staff to examine “the ways in which the campus environment and culture contribute to mental health challenges at Cornell.” 

Lack of urgency; lack of a holistic approach; lack of independence, transparency, and accountability; lack of full mandate, scope, and goals; such aspects of the announcement highlight our concerns about the strength of the Cornell administration’s commitment to student mental health.

Lack of Urgency

Some background puts the March 20 announcement in perspective. President Pollack announced in September 2018 that Cornell would undertake a “comprehensive review” of student mental health. It was then only last week, seven months into the academic year, that the Cornell administration finally outlined plans for the review in a late-night, mid-week, out-of-the-blue email to students.

It may also be noted that after we first wrote to the Cornell President seeking a review of student mental health, it took 10 months for the administration to respond with a clear answer, and President Pollack’s answer at that time was “No.”

In that January 2018 response, President Pollack pointed instead to an “external assessment” then being 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.”

We wrote to President Pollack again in August 2018, arguing that the JED review was “plainly insufficient.” We noted that the review (or the parts of it that Cornell had chosen to make public) included no findings, and that its recommendations had not addressed 1) CAPS services; 2) Cornell’s suicide prevention policy; 3) community mental health provider services to Cornell students; 4) academic workloads; 5) or faculty and staff handling of students in distress.

Throughout 2018, two student organizations—the undergraduate Cornell Mental Health Task Force and Cornell Graduate Students United—made extraordinary efforts to seek an independent review and to advocate for specific improvements for student mental health.

With the March 20 announcement, the Cornell administration seems to have lost an entire academic year of time for a comprehensive review. Cornell’s 10-day spring break starts this week, and then only five weeks are left until the last day of spring semester classes.

Lack of a Holistic Approach

Vice President Lombardi’s announcement suggests that the Cornell administration has decided against going forward with a true comprehensive review; the announcement indicates a preference instead for a review that is modest and incremental.

The plans outlined on March 20 fragment the review into at least two compartments, rather than establishing a centralized task force to review all Cornell mental health matters in their “comprehensive” entirety. This is at odds with President Pollack’s statements that Cornell would undertake a “comprehensive” and a “holistic” review of student mental health.

We along with others have called for a task force to conduct a comprehensive review due to the interconnectedness and complexity of student mental health challenges. The challenges deal strongly with CAPS clinical services but hardly with CAPS alone; the scope of a comprehensive review must examine university policies, administration commitment, academic culture, campus climate, community mental health services—and the intersection of all these areas.

Lack of Independence, Transparency, and Accountability

The March 20 plans lack a structure or mechanism to ensure the independence of the review, such as the appointment of a recognized external expert as task force chair (or co-chair), who would oversee all elements of the review and report directly and only to the Cornell President; the Cornell administration, rather, seems intent on a review with ambiguous lines of authority and accountability that is guided and closely controlled by the administration itself.

The March 20 announcement said nothing about the charge that the review teams have been given; about who authorized the fragmented review plans; about who appointed the members of the two entities that will conduct the review; or about which university authority the review teams will report to, and by what deadline.

The announcement also failed to identify all but two members of the review teams—nothing was said about the appointment of specific external mental health experts, student leaders, or Ithaca community stakeholders. This lack of transparency (or efficiency) suggests the absence of a strong mandate.

Vice President Lombardi did announce the appointment of co-chairs for the campus environment committee—two associate deans who are both new to Cornell and to Ithaca. Typically, university officials at the vice president and vice provost levels have been assigned leadership roles on mental health task forces at peer institutions.

The March 20 announcement made no commitment to transparently releasing all reports related to the review.

Lack of Full Mandate, Scope, and Goals

The March 20 announcement said nothing about the mandate, scope, and goals given to the clinical mental health services external review team and the campus environment committee. The announcement makes no mention of mandating the two review entities to report findings or make recommendations.

Vice President Lombardi said that the clinical mental health services external review team will “evaluate our services.” With such a vague and narrow mandate, the team may not be empowered to review the many budgetary and other policies that affect the services, or the services provided to Cornell students on referral off campus by community providers.

Vice President Lombardi said that the campus environment committee “will gather information” about the environment and culture at Cornell. With such a meager mandate, the committee may not be empowered to examine the plethora of policies and practices related to mental health (suicide prevention, student disabilities, academic pressure, alcohol and other drug services, residential life, sexual assault, hazing, vulnerable population groups, education and awareness, emergency response)—and their interconnectedness—with the required rigor and vigor.

Lack of Resolve

All this leads us to worry about a lack of resolve in addressing student mental health at Cornell. We continue to have concerns about “an institutional mindset reflecting complacency and defensiveness,” as we wrote to President Pollack nearly two years ago.

We are disappointed by the President’s hesitation and delays in moving forward with a comprehensive review. We were surprised when she declined our request in 2017 to meet with us to discuss our concerns and suggestions. In December, Robert S. Harrison, chairman of the Cornell University Board of Trustees, also declined our request to address the board on student mental health at its meeting in Ithaca scheduled for March 22.

Last fall, we welcomed President Pollack’s announcement that Cornell would conduct a comprehensive review of student mental health. What we said then remains our belief—and our hope:

“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.”

—By Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack

Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack are co-founders of The Sophie Fund, a non-profit organization supporting mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community. The Sophie Fund was established in memory of their daughter, Sophie, a Cornell fine arts student who died by suicide in 2016 while on a health leave of absence.

UPDATE 4/1/19

Cornell Health posted further information about the mental health review on its website:

Cornell’s comprehensive review of mental health

In September of 2018, the Office of the President announced that the university would be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health, stating that “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.”

Over the course of fall 2018, feedback was solicited from a wide range of student, staff, and faculty stakeholders, including the university-wide Coalition on Mental Health.The consensus was that the comprehensive review should include two broad themes:

Exploring how best to meet the growing clinical needs of students facing mental health problems

Identifying ways in which the campus environment / campus culture might change to better support student mental health

Cornell’s comprehensive review will be conducted by two different groups working in concert with each other:

A university Mental Health Review Committee composed of staff, students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional), and faculty
An external team of expert evaluators (members to be announced soon)

Upcoming timeline:

This spring 2019, the university is in the process of finalizing membership in the Mental Health Review Committee, and will convene the committee and refine questions to explore with key stakeholders. The committee co-chairs (Miranda Swanson, Associate Dean for Student Services in the College of Engineering and Marla Love, Senior Associate Dean for Diversity and Equity in the Dean of Students Office) will also develop a plan for gathering campus input and collaborate with external reviewers to plan site visits. Between Fall 2019 and Spring 2020, the Mental Health Review Committee will conduct a ‘Listening Tour’ of campus; the external reviewers will conduct their site visits, and submit a written report.

More details will be added to this page soon.

Cornell Health also posted information about “Upcoming changes to Cornell Health’s counseling services”:

Cornell Health is planning changes to student mental health services to provide more rapid access to care. These changes are in response to student feedback and a growing demand for services, and were first announced in a message to the student body on March 20, 2019.

We are adapting a model of care currently in place at Brown University that has proven successful in supporting seamless and rapid access to mental health services.

Beginning in Fall 2019:

Students can have access to same-day counseling appointments (or next-day appointments, if they contact us in the afternoon)
Students will have flexibility in who they see: they can select a therapist based on convenience (i.e., whomever has an opening on a given day at a specific time), or wait to see a therapist of their choosing
Students who are interested in continued counseling will be able to select half-hour or hour-long appointments (students’ counselors will partner with them in determining the frequency and length of appointments that will meet their needs)
Students will have increased access to psychotropic medication management services

How we plan to accommodate these changes:

Beginning fall 2019, every therapist’s day will include time slots for same-day appointments. These same-day appointments will be focused on addressing immediate needs and problem-solving. We will gain much of this time in the schedule by converting the “brief assessment” telephone screenings and the traditional “CAPS intake” appointments into times that can be scheduled to directly address the student’s concern.

Additionally, we will offer half-hour counseling appointments along with the traditional hour-long appointments to increase the number of appointments available each day. We anticipate the rapid access and the flexibility built into this new model will be a welcome change for students.

More details will be added to this page soon.

Thank You, Cornell Student-Athletes!

Cornell University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) this week announced that its “Spike for Sophie” mental health fundraising event in December collected $909.00 in donations to The Sophie Fund.

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Sophie Jones of The Sophie Fund (center) with SAAC members at “Spike for Sophie”

“The event was a huge success!” said Morgan Chall ’19, a varsity gymnast, who is SAAC co-president and the NCAA Ivy League SAAC representative. “We had an awesome turnout with a little over 100 student-athletes, administrators, non-student-athletes and strength coaches rolling through throughout the event. Aside from everyone coming together to support a worthy cause, it was a really fun event that brought together the Cornell community through a shared love of sports.”

The “Spike for Sophie” spikeball tournament and related “Bench Press for Sophie” took place on December 5 at Cornell campus sports facilities. The event was co-sponsored by SAAC, Cornell Minds Matter, the Spikeball Club, Athlete Ally (LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports), and the Red Key Athlete Honors Society. The event stemmed from an NCAA Division 1 SAAC focus on mental health awareness in athletics during 2018.

“We chose The Sophie Fund because it allowed us the opportunity to give back to a local Ithaca organization fighting a cause our athletic community cares deeply about,” said Chall, a student in Global and Public Health Sciences. “Not only was it a fun and exciting afternoon, but the event was a huge success, by uniting students, student-athletes, faculty and athletic administrators over an important public health issue.”

Chall said that the event highlighted SAAC’s #Don’tBearItAlone campaign “by reminding every member of the athletic community the importance of taking care of your mental health.” She added: “’Spike for Sophie’ showed the Cornell and Ithaca community that decreasing the stigma against mental health and improving resources especially within the athletic community is an important issue we all take very seriously. The wide range of support from faculty to students showed just that.”

Scott MacLeod, a co-founder of The Sophie Fund, said the organization was grateful to receive the donation, noting that it would help support mental health initiatives aiding young people in the greater Ithaca community. “The Sophie Fund expresses its truly heartfelt thanks to the Cornell Student-Athlete Advisory Committee and other student groups for spreading awareness and knowledge about mental health and providing hope to fellow students who may be struggling. Cornell students continue to be champions for mental health both on campus and off campus.”

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Brandon Womack ’19 and Eli Bienstock ’17, and Cornell University Athletic Director Andy Noel at “Spike for Sophie”

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Photo Credits: Courtesy Sophie Jones and the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee

Spike for Sophie

Cornell University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) is holding its annual fundraiser next week featuring a spikeball tournament and a bench press challenge. This year’s theme is mental health and all proceeds will be donated to The Sophie Fund.

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The “Spike for Sophie” fundraiser will take place in the Richard Ramin Multipurpose Room of Bartels Hall on December 5 from 2–4:30 p.m. The spikeball tournament is open to the whole campus, a single-elimination event with a $10 per team entry fee. Pick-up spikeball will be available. Teams, which will compete for 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place prizes, can sign up for the tournament at this link.

The event also includes “Bench Press for Sophie,” where Cornell student-athletes and coaches will raise money from their sponsors—family, friends, and professors—by bench pressing as many reps as they can—55 lbs. for women and 95 lbs. for men. The event will take place in the Friedman weight room.

There will be bench press t-shirts, sports massages ($1/minute up to 10 minutes), free food, and mental health information tables. Public Health Fellow and former Cornell football student-athlete Baba Adejuyigbe will staff the Cornell Health table. It will focus on educating students on the various mental health support services on Cornell’s campus in addition to counseling, with an emphasis on the new resources available to student-athletes. Representatives from The Sophie Fund will also host a table with information about the organization and to answer questions from students.

SAAC is the voice of student-athletes on the Cornell campus, and strives to promote a positive student-athlete experience through providing feedback to conference and national legislation on campus issues, organizing community service events, and acting as a communication line between student-athletes and campus administrators.

The NCAA Division 1 SAAC as a whole has put a focus on mental health awareness in athletics this year, so our SAAC here at Cornell took it upon ourselves to raise awareness and address the mental health issues on our campus. We believe mental health is a big and unaddressed issue in the student-athlete community at Cornell and we are committed to changing this culture.

Student-athletes face all the struggles of a normal student at Cornell, in addition to the time restraints of practices and workouts. Although student-athletes have superior time management skills, it is very common to feel extremely overwhelmed. Additionally, we constantly deal with the pressures of performance on a daily basis, which can take a toll on the mind.

National surveys show that more than 30 percent of student-athletes have experienced overwhelming anxiety. And 30 percent of college students reported feeling so down at some point during the previous year that it was difficult to function. A lot of student-athletes feel the pressure to be perfect all of the time, and the false perception equating mental toughness to mental health creates a negative stigma and culture where student-athletes are less likely to seek help. Student-athletes also deal with injuries, which can lead to a recovery process that is extremely taxing mentally. While being an athlete is not our sole purpose in life, it is still a huge part of our identity. Injuries can take this away from athletes, being unable to train with your team or compete in the sport you have dedicated so much of your life toward.

One in four college students has a diagnosable mental illness. Student-athletes in particular have reported 2 percent higher rates of stress than non-student-athletes. Mental health is a key component of athletic performance. As student-athletes, it is important to understand that mental toughness and mental health are separate ideals. Seeking resources is an act of strength, not a sign of weakness. With everyone’s help, we can decrease stigma around mental health and bring resources to create a culture of acceptance.

This is the message we strive to send with our #DontBearItAlone campaign. We were inspired by mental health initiatives such as #damworthit and #powe6fulminds launched at schools and Division 1 conferences around the country. Our #DontBearItAlone campaign aims to raise awareness and continue the conversation around mental health support on Cornell’s campus, with an emphasis on the unique struggles and support needed for the athletic community. This fall, we started hosting mental health awareness games through #DontBearItAlone in which athletes wear green attire such as shoelaces or ribbons in support of mental health. These games also have tables to give out mental health information, and educate students and other audience members on where to find support on campus.

SAAC’s mental health effort is in conjunction with all of the work that Cornell Minds Matter (CMM) and other campus organizations have been doing for years. They work closely with administration, faculty, staff, and students to help decrease the stigma surrounding mental health, increase awareness of this important public health problem, and improve existing frameworks surrounding support systems. SAAC focuses on raising awareness within the athletic community in particular, but we work together with other student organizations on campus to make our voice and our efforts stronger. “Spike For Sophie” is co-sponsored by CMM, the Spikeball Club, Athlete Ally (LGBTQ+ inclusion in sports), and the Red Key Athlete Honors Society.

—By Morgan Chall and Jenna Phelps

Morgan Chall ’19, a varsity gymnast, is co-president of Cornell University’s Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC) and the NCAA Ivy League SAAC Representative. She is a student in Global and Public Health Sciences. 

Jenna Phelps ’20, a volleyball middle blocker, is the SAAC public relations chair. She is a student in applied economics and management.

Follow Cornell SAAC on Twitter: @cornellsaac

Follow Cornell SAAC on Facebook: @bigredSAAC

Follow Cornell SAAC on Instagram: @cornell_saac

Thank You, Cornell Student Mental Health Champions

The Sophie Fund organizes an annual “Cupcake Button Campaign” each fall to support local mental health organizations. College students fan out across campus and the wider community soliciting donations and awarding generous souls with buttons depicting a colorful cupcake. The campaign is a run-up to the annual Ithaca Cupcake Baking Contest, held in the Commons in mid-October.

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“Cupcake a Cornellian”

Students from Cornell University outdid themselves this year: they collected some 300 donations totaling $1,367.50, smashing last year’s record of $829.50 that went to the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service.

The 2018 goal was to raise monies for the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, a nonprofit advocacy and service organization that runs critical training and education programs as well as community social events. The Sophie Fund will present the Cupcake Button Campaign donations to the Mental Health Association at a ceremony in January.

The student groups behind this year’s fundraising included Cornell Minds Matter (CMM), Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter (APO), Phi Sigma Pi honor fraternity, PATCH (Pre-Professional Association Towards Careers in Health), and the Mortar Board Der Hexenkreis Senior Honor Society.

A highlight of the campaign: “Cupcake a Cornellian,” an event held in Cornell’s Arts Quad on October 12 in which students made donations in exchange for the opportunity to mash a gooey cupcake (or just a heaping plate of whipped cream) into the face of a student leader.

APO President Winnie Ho praised the Cornell organizations and spoke about how the campaign raised awareness as well as money:

“Every penny of our fundraising total this year was due to the hard work of volunteers who engaged students and community members at Ho Plaza, the Arts Quad, and at the Collegetown GreenStar Natural Foods location. Beyond the impressive totals, the conversations that were fostered continue to be the most valuable experience of each year’s fundraising.

“Donors leave more than a monetary contribution—oftentimes, they leave us with their thoughts, experiences, and hopes for what mental health will look like in our society. Everyone from fellow students who ask how to get involved, to former and current practitioners who share both grim and hopeful stories in the workplace, have stopped and allowed for genuine interactions that are crucial in our fight to de-stigmatize conversations around mental health. While there are many battles left to have around mental health, there are so many people committed to this fight.”

One of the tactics in the fight, noted Chelsea Kiely, CMM vice president for events and co-chair of Cornell’s 2018 Mental Health Awareness Week, is getting mental health out in the open.

“The turnout for ‘Cupcake a Cornellian’ was incredible, and was so much fun all around,” she said, adding: “I especially enjoyed cupcaking Matt Jirsa, the co-president of Cornell Minds Matter.”

This Thanksgiving, The Sophie Fund thanks our community’s student mental health champions.

 

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Winnie Ho, cupcaked

 

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Matt Jirsa, after a colorful cupcaking

 

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Winnie Ho and Matt Jirsa, survivors of “Cupcake a Cornellian”

 

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Photos courtesy of Winnie Ho and Matt Jirsa

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