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.

Saying “The S Word” at Cornell

The uncomfortable topic of suicide was the main theme of a four-day-long “Mental Health Weekend” organized by the student mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter. As part of its effort to encourage open discussion about suicide and to destigmatize mental disorders, the group hosted a screening for the Ithaca community Sunday evening of The S Word, a new award-winning documentary by director Lisa Klein. The event was sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

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Reba McCutcheon, Cornell University associate dean of students; Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives; Lisa Klein, director of The S Word; Kelechi Ubozoh, mental health activist; and Cooper Walter, president of Cornell Minds Matter

The film follows the remarkable journey of suicide attempt survivor Dese’Rae L. Stage as she “documents the stories of courage, insight, and humor of fellow survivors.” Klein was on hand to personally present the film on the Cornell University campus, and, along with one of those survivors, Kelechi Ubozoh, took part in a panel discussion immediately following the screening. They were joined by Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives.

Klein is a survivor of both her father’s and brother’s suicides. She has struggled with the “whys” for years, along with the guilt, shame, and confusion that lingers in suicide’s wake. She made The S Word to spur more open conversations about suicide.

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Watching The S Word at the Biotechnology Building conference room Sunday evening

“Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally,” said Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter. “We hosted The S Word to increase the awareness and understanding of suicide. By expanding the conversation, we hope to contribute to the growing Zero Suicide initiative in Tompkins County.”

Other Mental Health Weekend events included a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students could share their personal stories about suicide. On Saturday evening, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca hosted Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

The Sophie Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for improved mental health policies and practices in Tompkins County. It was established by the family of Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell senior who took her own life in Ithaca in March 2016 while on a health leave of absence.

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Sophie Jones, a Cornell University student and volunteer with The Sophie Fund, at The S Word screening

(Photography by Sarah Horbacewicz/The Sophie Fund)

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Click here to read the Cornell Daily Sun‘s story on the screening of The S Word

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]

 

Why Cornell Minds Matter

Mental Health Weekend is my last hurrah.

I joined Cornell Minds Matter, a student organization that promotes mental health at Cornell University, during the spring semester of my freshman year. My first year of college was rough. Academically, I managed fine. Mentally, I struggled to stay afloat.

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Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter

The normal homesickness, imposter syndrome, and fish-out-of-water sensation that many teenagers experience when saying goodbye to their families and going away to college were hard enough. On top of this, my anxiety symptoms were worsening. The social anxiety disorder that I had been diagnosed with a few years before had been improving with cognitive behavioral therapy. But traveling across the country, from a small high school on a strip mall to a campus of almost twenty thousand, was almost too much.

I felt isolated. I didn’t go to the dining halls because sitting alone in a crowded room was unbearable. I tried supplementing my calorically insufficient diet with packages of Oreos that I would eat in one sitting, but I kept losing weight. Losing hope, I got an email about Club Fest, the big gathering of hundreds of campus clubs in Cornell’s field house. That’s where I discovered Cornell Minds Matter.

Cornell Minds Matter (CMM) is a student group that strives to promote the wellbeing of our campus, reduce the stigma of mental illness, and connect students to the many resources available. Headquartered in a room in the Dean of Students Office, Cornell Minds Matter hosts discussion series on mental health topics (such as Dining with Diverse Minds), de-stressing events (such as gratitude card writing and bamboo planting), free physical exercise activities (including yoga and Zumba), and dozens of other events.

When I approached Cornell Minds Matter’s table, the CMM members struck me with their generosity, passion, and compassion. I was immediately interested. Being pre-med, I wanted someday to help people with their health. In CMM, I could serve others and maybe, just maybe, even raise myself out of the morass I was in.

Over three years, starting out as a regular member, then becoming a program chair, then a vice president, and now, in my senior year, president of this amazing organization, I’ve tried my best to make Cornell a better place for all minds. I can’t thank Cornell Minds Matter enough for supporting me all these years as I’ve struggled—and, I’m grateful to say, largely overcome—my own mental illness.

I’m not alone in my battle. Twenty-five percent of college students experience a mental health disorder during their time at university. Yet, less than one-third seek help. Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally.

So, along with my incredible fellow CMM members, I’ve been organizing Cornell Minds Matter’s Mental Health Weekend to take place April 13–16. The Weekend’s main theme is suicide.

On Saturday, April 14, we’re hosting a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students will share their personal stories about suicide.

On Saturday evening at Hotel Ithaca, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca is hosting Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

On Sunday, April 15, through the support of The Sophie Fund, we are hosting a screening of the new documentary on suicide, The S Word. The film will be immediately followed by a Q&A panel discussion with director Lisa Klein, mental health activist Kelechi Ubozoh, and leader in the New York suicide prevention scene Garra Lloyd-Lester. Among the half dozen other events is a Mental Health Gala at the Johnson Museum on April 13.

We’ve put our hearts as well as our minds into Mental Health Weekend. As a graduating senior, it will be one of the last Cornell Minds Matter events I’ll help with. I hope you can make it.

—By Cooper Walter

Cooper Walter is the president of Cornell Minds Matter. A member of the Class of 2018, he studies human biology, health, and society in the College of Human Ecology at Cornell University.