A letter of acceptance to college, which usually arrives in March or April before high school graduation, is a wonderful milestone for young people and their parents. Thus begins an exciting and sweet passage: commencement festivities, packing for life on a college campus, some goodbyes and hugs, moving into a dorm, making new friends, and beginning a promising academic journey into adulthood.
After more than a year of Covid-19 pandemic restrictions, the smiles will be wide when students arrive this fall for what is expected to be normal in-person classes at Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.
It is very easy to overlook—or even be clueless about—what for some students will become a dark side of leaving the family nest: anxiety, depression, sexual assault and hazing violence, misuse of alcohol and drugs, academic struggles, relationship problems, and more.
At Cornell, the proportion of undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically (missing classes, unable to study or complete homework) for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. Many reports indicate that college students are struggling even more with their mental health during the pandemic.
College orientation materials usually provide some notice about the risks and the resources for staying safe and healthy, but they may have minimal impact amid the excitement of transitioning to college.
So, a word of advice for college students, particularly for incoming first-years:
Educate yourself about the mental health challenges that you may face, and learn about the ways that you can address those challenges if and when they arise.
The same advice goes for parents. Know what your college kid is getting into.
This essential booklet was written by Forefront’s Marny Lombard, who has gained a profound understanding of the challenges that college students may experience. Lombard’s son Sam struggled for many years with depression and died by suicide in 2013. He was 22 years old and a college senior majoring in architecture. Lombard wrote the Guide to provide parents and families with the knowledge that she needed but did not find.
“Mental health problems among young adults are more common than many families realize,” the Guide says. “In fact, one in three college students experiences a mental health issue, most commonly anxiety or depression. Major life changes such as adjusting to college life and experiencing added academic stress can set the stage for the onset of mental health issues.”
According to the Guide, parents and family members sometimes struggle to understand their student’s mental health concerns—or even to recognize that their student is in distress. Learning that their student is having suicidal thoughts can create extreme stress for the family.
Forefront’s Guide provides authoritative resources and recommended reading to help parents and families of students who are struggling with their mental health. It can help them to stay in touch with their students and know when and how to seek help if needed.
The Guide asks parents to gradually change the tenor of their conversations with their students, listening more and speaking less. Using compassion, setting aside judgment.
Guide sections include: “Ways to Keep Conversation Flowing”; “Ask about how things work at your college”; Finding the Right Therapist,” “What To Do When Your Student is Struggling”; “About Medications”; and “If Your Student Is Thinking About Suicide.”
“Suicidal urges, in particular, should always be taken seriously and never dismissed as a ploy to gain attention,” the Guide says, noting that “asking someone whether they are thinking about suicide will not plant the idea in their mind.” The Guide provides valuable information about engaging with a suicidal student and helping them get professional help. Suicide is preventable. “The vast majority of young people who consider suicide will move through this difficult time,” the Guide says. “Many will begin to learn how to manage their mental health.
Finally, the Guide advises parents to check in regularly about their students’ stress levels and warns against delaying treatment when the need is clear. It cites data showing that 75 percent of the time the onset of mental illness occurs by the age of 24.
“The longer the delay between the onset of mental illness and the start of treatment, the more difficult it can to successfully treat these issues,” the Guide says. “The good news is that you can learn how to support them and help them manage the underlying stressors.”
Cornell Circle K is a student organization committed to doing meaningful service through direct community engagement, developing its members to be the successful leaders today, and being an advocate for positive change in order to create a better world for humanity.
Cornell Circle K members
In our latest initiative, Cornell Circle K organized a mental wellness kit fundraiser to support mental health in Ithaca and on the Cornell University campus and to benefit The Sophie Fund. Our members sold hot chocolate kits with peppermint candies, Mind Your Mind stickers, mental health resources, and Sophie Fund buttons and stickers to encourage a healthy start to Cornell’s 2021 spring semester.
We were in contact with other Cornell organizations and club members in order to spread an engaging message of support and to remove the stigma associated with accessing help for mental health improvement. Especially under the circumstances of the coronavirus pandemic, it is easy for students to feel isolated and overwhelmed with stress. Our fundraiser had the goal to relieve this stress for students undergoing these unprecedented times. Altogether, Cornell Circle K sold 65 mental wellness kits and raised a total of $243.00 for The Sophie Fund.
“The stigma attached to mental health can make it a difficult conversation to start on campus. The collaboration with The Sophie Fund and Cornell Circle K provided us with an exciting opportunity to start those conversations, as well as raise awareness about the need for strong support and resources,” said Julia Fan, co-president of Cornell Circle K.
Cornell Circle K’s mental health kit
Brendon Nguyen, also co-president of Cornell Circle K, mentioned: “I am so glad Circle K connected with The Sophie Fund to put together a fundraiser to spread some joy while also sharing mental wellness resources with more of the Cornell community. During my early years at Cornell, I remember feeling so isolated with my anxiety, but I was lucky to have a lot of support to normalize conversations around mental wellness and eventually seeking professional help. After hearing about The Sophie Fund’s mission, it seemed like a no-brainer to support a local nonprofit that actively works towards helping more youth take better care of their mental health. The more we can do to support each other’s mental wellness, the more we can accomplish and the better off we are.”
“We are honored that Cornell Circle K chose us for its mental wellness initiative,” said Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund. “Beyond that, we are so grateful to see Cornell students supporting each other, and working to break down the stigma about seeking help for mental health.”
Preparing the Ithaca Children’s Garden
Founded in 1936, Cornell Circle K is a campus-based, student-led, inclusive service organization. It is a proud and active member of Circle K International, the world’s largest student-led collegiate service organization, and maintains close connections with the International K Family (Kiwanis, Key Club, Builders Club, and Aktion Club). Circle K International boasts a membership of more than 11,000 collegiate service leaders on more than 500 campuses worldwide. This organization is based around three tenets: service, leadership, and fellowship.
Throughout the year, Cornell Circle K completes various service kits to get involved around the Ithaca community and beyond. During the fall 2020 semester, members wrote letters to residents and healthcare workers at a Hattie Larlham care facility in Ohio to encourage wellbeing and show support for those at risk of Covid-19. Members also crafted baby blankets out of fleece cloth for Arnot Health Hospitals in Elmira. Another service kit with tissue paper carnations and no slip socks was done for seniors at Ithaca area nursing homes. Dog toys were also created as a service kit to support local animal shelters.
Past fundraisers by Cornell Circle K have supported other local community organizations. During the fall semester of 2020 we completed a sticker fundraiser supporting the Multicultural Center of Ithaca, which has a passion for eliminating barriers in racial justice, cultural development and representation, and equity and inclusion.
We have raised money for Cayuga Dog Rescue, a local rescue shelter, which made it possible for one of their dogs, Snowball, to spend the day at Cornell Vet Hospital’s oncology clinic having some mammary tumors evaluated. Two other rescues, Sammy and Toby, also received winter coats, special treats, brain teaser puzzles, and tug toys.
Cornell Circle K has also been involved with the Cayuga Nature Center helping prepare the garden for winter as well as the Ithaca Children’s Garden pulling weeds and raking leaves. Our service and volunteer projects are wide-ranging but have a focus on communal unity and support.
—By Max Fante
Max Fante ’24 is the Fundraising Committee Chair for Cornell Circle K. He is a Biological Sciences major in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University.
The Sophie Fund, in a presentation to Cornell University on March 1, supported the Cornell Mental Health Review’s recommendations for addressing student mental health and commended Cornell administrators for launching a process to implement them.
The Mental Health Review, initiated by President Martha E. Pollack in 2018, and carried out by internal and external review teams, made 60 recommendations comprehensively calling for improvements in mental health and medical services, academic life, student well-being, and mental health awareness and proactive support.
The Cornell administration released the review’s 34-page Final Report in October; at the same time, it announced the creation of an Executive Accountability Committee led by senior academic officials as well as senior administrators overseeing Student & Campus Life and Cornell Health to evaluate and implement the recommendations.
“We commend the mental health review teams for recognizing the seriousness of the challenge and, through extensive research and analysis, providing valuable detailed recommendations to comprehensively address it,” Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, co-founders of The Sophie Fund, said in a written presentation to the Executive Accountability Committee. “We wholeheartedly support the Final Report’s recommendations. The Final Report provides the road map for Cornell to establish a gold standard for collegiate mental health.”
MacLeod and Hack, who established the nonprofit advocacy group in 2016 after the suicide death of their daughter Sophie, who was on a health leave of absence from the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning, thanked Pollack and Vice President for Student & Campus Life Ryan Lombardi for “recognizing the need for continuous attention to student mental health.” They also thanked undergraduate and graduate student organizations who sought change for “representing the voices of Cornell students and especially those in need of mental health support.”
The Sophie Fund presentation agreed with the Final Report’s call for “an enhanced version of excellence, which has as its foundation a healthy educational environment” and with recommendations for academic policies and practices, faculty and staff training and resources, campus collaboration, and communication.
The presentation said that “these recommendations recognize that 1) supporting student mental health requires the coordinated involvement and commitment of administrators, faculty, staff, and students across the schools and the campus; 2) it is a false premise to expect Cornell Health/Counseling and Psychological Services alone to shoulder the responsibility for student mental health; 3) schools and departments must support student mental health through practices that foster community, eliminate undue academic stress, discourage unhealthy competition, and support struggling students; and 4) effective student mental health support today requires a culture change with strong institutional leadership and structured cross-campus collaboration.”
The presentation highlighted 13 priority areas for action as the Executive Accountability Committee considers the Final Report’s recommendations, stressing the need to emphasize “providing real tools, ensuring their actual use, setting concrete goals, and measuring the outcomes and impact.”
“An all-faculty email stressing the value of student mental health gatekeeping may check a box, but it would likely have little, if any, tangible effect,” the presentation said. “Similarly, offering mental health gatekeeper training for faculty would be an excellent step, but it would be meaningless if nobody signed up for it.”
The presentation called on Cornell to ensure “strong leadership and direction from the senior administration to marshal the human effort and financial resources needed to implement improvements and ultimately achieve culture change.” MacLeod and Hack commended Cornell for “quickly establishing” the Executive Accountability Committee to drive improvements.
The Sophie Fund suggested creating a student advocacy office “dedicated to helping students navigate specific institutional challenges and obstacles in academic practices and mental health services, including the Health Leave of Absence process and insurance barriers, that may negatively impact or further undermine their mental health, spoil their positive college experience, and threaten their trajectories into fulfilling adult lives.”
The presentation also stressed the need for new zero-tolerance university regulations and new campus education and awareness programs with the publicly stated goal of terminating the “stubborn normalization” of sexual assault and hazing violence among Cornell students.
Other priority areas cited in The Sophie Fund’s presentation: mandatory training for faculty, staff, and students in ways to identify and help students in need of mental health support; academic policies affecting undergraduate and graduate student wellbeing; clinical best practices; referrals to community mental health providers; health leaves of absence; suicide prevention; healthy campus community life; mental health communications and education; student organizations; and the role of parents and families.
The Final Report cited Cornell PULSE/CUE surveys indicating that the proportion of Cornell undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically—missing classes, unable to study or complete homework, etc.—for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. From Fall 2015 to Fall 2018, individual therapy encounters at CAPS increased 19 percent, the report added.
The 13-member internal Mental Health Review Committee, which included five students, was headed by Marla Love, currently interim dean of students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for student services in the College of Engineering. The External Review Team consisted of Michael Hogan, a former commissioner of mental health for New York State, Ohio, and Connecticut (chair); Karen Singleton, chief of Mental Health and Counseling Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Medical; and Henry Chung, senior medical director of care management organization at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
The Cornell University administration on October 22 released the Final Report of a nearly year-long Mental Health Review that contains 60 recommendations comprehensively calling for improvements in mental health and medical services, academic life, student well-being, and mental health awareness and proactive support.
The administration at the same time announced the formation of a high-level Executive Accountability Committee, led by senior academic officials as well as senior administrators overseeing student affairs and Cornell Health, to evaluate and prioritize the recommendations.
The 34-page report’s recommendations include a mix of specific suggestions and identification of areas for further review. The report cited a need for upgrading psychological counseling services, but also strongly argued that fully supporting student mental health requires significant changes in academic policies and practices.
“Cornell, like its peer schools, must rethink what it means for students to strive for excellence, and design an enhanced version of excellence, which has as its foundation a healthy educational environment,” the report stated.
“While treatment offered by counseling centers can benefit students directly through symptom relief, increased levels of academic and social functioning, and increased retention and graduation rates, improving mental health requires a degree of culture change, which must be a university wide effort,” the report said.
“Students maintain a culture of competition in the curricular, co-curricular, and social spheres, which normalizes course and extra-curricular overloads that can become a detriment to physical and mental health,” the report’s authors wrote. “We have observed that the culture of competition may take on an unhealthy cycle of expectation and behavior that can reach traumatizing levels for students, faculty, and staff.”
The report expressed concern about the health and well-being of faculty and staff, and about the impact that increasing expectations has on their well-being and on their ability to support students. The report said the issue warrants continued attention but noted it was outside the scope of the review that was focused on student mental health.
The review was conducted during the 2019–20 academic year by a task force appointed in mid-2019 that included three experts from outside the university as well as faculty, staff, and students from the campus community. The task force submitted its Final Report in April just as the Covid-19 (coronavirus) pandemic was disrupting education at Cornell and on campuses across the country.
The review examined challenges affecting Cornell’s undergraduate student population as well as its graduate and professional students (numbering 14,743, 6,239, and 2,638, respectively, in Fall 2020). It included two campus surveys, 37 focus groups, five Telling Stories workshops, six World Café large-group dialogues, and meetings with undergraduate and graduate students, deans and faculty members, senior staff members, and campus healthcare providers. Additionally, the task force met with off-campus therapists and community mental health organizations. The task force also reviewed Cornell Health data, and examined mental health reviews conducted at other colleges and more than 70 student well-being programs and initiatives.
The 13-member internal Mental Health Review Committee, which included five students, was headed by Marla Love, senior associate dean of students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for student services in the College of Engineering. The External Review Team consisted of Michael Hogan, a former commissioner of mental health for New York State, Ohio, and Connecticut (chair); Karen Singleton, chief of Mental Health and Counseling Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Medical; and Henry Chung, senior medical director of care management organization at Montefiore Medical Center in New York.
The report highlighted one “overarching recommendation” to sustain the complex challenge of improving student mental health: “Creation of a widely representative permanent committee on mental health to ensure the implementation of immediate recommendations, and to monitor progress and conduct further review of those recommendations that will require more time and resources to enact.”
The External Review Team members stressed the importance of establishing a permanent committee on mental health “to act as a steward of this cause” in an April 15 report transmittal letter to Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi. “An issue like mental health, which touches so many and is affected by every aspect of university life, requires consistent attention and a centralized effort across the university,” they wrote.
Hogan, Singleton, and Chung also cited the “distinctive role” the Cornell administration must play in implementing the recommendations. “Mental health must be championed at the highest levels of leadership in order for students, faculty, and staff to have the confidence to act,” they wrote.
The plea echoed the report’s introduction, which stated in part: “The recommendations that emerged from this process must be addressed and ongoing change led at an institutional level to ensure that mental health and wellbeing is valued and embedded in the culture of the university.”
Medical and Mental Health Services
In its assessments and recommendations, the report recognized Cornell’s history in the collegiate mental health field, and commended Cornell for providing “whole person,” or “integrated,” mental health care through Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) and Cornell Health’s primary care services.
The report noted “significant recent changes” to improve access to mental health services. These included the hiring of additional staff—according to the report, the number of budgeted fulltime CAPS therapists increased from about 28 in 2018 to about 38 in 2020.
The changes also included the adoption of a new service-delivery model in Fall 2019, which enabled 25-minute initial outpatient sessions virtually on demand, and offers students greater flexibility in choosing their therapists and scheduling appointments. “The approach has already led to increased utilization, significant reductions in wait times, and decreased referral to community therapists,” the report said.
With the recent changes, there is not currently a need for significant staff increases or expanded access to services, the report said. Yet, if access and quality of care cannot be sustained, the report added, future increases in CAPS clinical staff may be required.
The report said that student feedback indicated a strong preference for long-term, weekly 50-minute psychotherapy sessions at CAPS. However, the review concluded that such a practice was not justified based on research evidence about the effectiveness of specific psychotherapies as well as current practices in insurance coverage.
“This is not to say that there is no benefit to long term counseling,” the report explained. “Clinics and insurance plans encourage individuals desiring such care to seek and pay for it on their own, so that available resources are used to benefit the entire community, and can be focused especially on those with immediate and serious concerns.”
Nonetheless, the report stated that “continued improvements in the professional medical and mental health services at Cornell are necessary… [involving] a continuing, long-term quality improvement process, not a quick fix.”
The report called for continued efforts to balance increased demand for mental health services as well as medical services with “finite resources.” The report urged improvement efforts including measuring outcomes, working with data, sustaining staff quality, and measuring patient satisfaction and concerns.
The report specifically recommended that Cornell require annual professional development training for all clinical staff on topics including suicidal patients, risk management, and multicultural competency and threat assessment; create a patient advocate/ombudsman for students to register complaints and positive feedback; utilize the Zero Suicide Model self-study to determine needed improvements in suicide prevention; utilize best practices tools to provide optimal care for underserved populations such as LGBTQ+ students; develop a framework for mental health patient access and continuity of care; improve integrated mental health care; consider refocusing the “Let’s Talk” mental health outreach service on underserved students; consider consultation with the International Accreditation of Counseling Services to benchmark against other collegiate mental health services; and consider hiring a sports psychologist to address the particular needs of student athletes.
Healthy Educational Environment
Noting there is “much to celebrate” about Cornell’s educational environment, the Mental Health Review nonetheless made significant recommendations for addressing the “toxic effects” that Cornell’s academic and social culture can have on student well-being and achievement.
“Multiple measures indicate that the mental health needs of students have increased significantly in recent years,” the report stated. It cited Cornell PULSE/CUE surveys indicating that the proportion of undergraduates who reported that they were unable to function academically—missing classes, unable to study or complete homework, etc.—for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety increased from 33 percent in 2015 to 42 percent in 2019. From Fall 2015 to Fall 2018, individual CAPS therapy encounters increased by 19 percent, the report added.
The report broadly pointed to pedagogical innovations that could play a role in decreasing student stress and anxiety, such as multiple and varied means of grading and evaluation, academic credit limits, and flexible timing in exam administration. The report recommended approaches to “foster community, collaboration, and autonomy” in academic and co-curricular life. The report also identified the need for increased “multicultural competency and fluency” and financial aid solutions addressing inequities to reduce stressors across Cornell’s changing racial, ethic, socioeconomic, and gender demographics. The report cited a need to address student stress over career prospects and graduate school admission.
The report specifically recommended that Cornell create a centralized mechanism for institutional oversight of academic policies and practices that negatively affect student mental health. It called for the mechanism to work closely with college/school leadership and faculty across Cornell to examine eight issues: grading on a curve; Pass/Fail grading for first-year students and certain types of classes for all students; academic work during scheduled breaks; credit limits; attendance policies, especially as related to mental health; workload outside of class; pre-enrollment syllabi availability; and mandatory meetings with advisors.
Cornell should address problems around prelim [mid-term exam] scheduling, raise the profile of advising as a critical component of student success, launch a uniform course feedback instrument, and encourage academic departments to conduct self-studies to identify key stressors for students and mitigation strategies for them, the report said.
The report called for mandatory mental health training for every faculty member and staff member at least once every two years, and said Cornell should encourage faculty to model and discuss behaviors that promote mental health in their course orientation lectures and initial meetings.
The report singled out Cornell’s graduate students, who play dual roles as students as well as teaching assistants (TAs), for requiring special attention. “Graduate students feel particularly vulnerable within Cornell’s rigorous yet loosely structured academic environment,” the report said. “Financial independence, loneliness and isolation, power differentials with faculty and mentors, work-life balance, and ambiguity and vulnerability in advisor/advisee relationships, seem to intensify stress in the graduate student experience.”
The report said that graduate students as well as professional students face special challenges related to social connectedness, work-life balance, and resilience. Classes, research, employment, and job searches limit the time they have to engage in activities that reduce stress, the report said. Moreover, it added, they tend to have few social connections outside of peers in their labs or programs, with whom they are often in competition for jobs and resources.
The report listed five proposals for addressing concerns raised by graduate students: train TAs in mental health and resilience so they can support their undergraduate students as well as self-manage their own well-being; create clear and consistent standards for PhD degree completion; develop a mechanism for reporting and acting on problematic thesis advisors; develop a template for documenting expectations when selecting an advising committee chair; and train new faculty advisors and graduate students in developing positive mentor/mentee relationships.
Social Connectedness and Resilience
Acknowledging benefits like diverse academic offerings, research opportunities, and a beautiful campus, the report nonetheless argued that “Cornell’s competitive environment, complex structure, and physical layout compound feelings of isolation… [C]ompetition and a culture of achievement at all costs pervade the academic and social environments and hinder social connections.”
The report cited factors such as a campus social life that is heavily dominated by fraternities and sororities, where hazing, sexual assault, and alcohol abuse are perennial problems; competitive application processes for club membership and leadership positions; lack of free and convenient fitness facilities; and Ithaca’s long, cold winters.
The report called for a centralized, campus-wide strategy, with substantial, personal, and sustained support from Cornell leaders, to live up to Cornell’s “Caring Community” slogan and promote messages and means for social connectedness and mutual support.
According to the report, the university has undertaken a series of substantive reforms to address hazing, sexual assault, and alcohol misuse in the Greek Letter community; the report said the review team members “strongly endorse these important and challenging steps as key aspects of supporting campus wide mental health.”
The report specifically recommended that Cornell establish a high-level task force to develop a campus-wide strategy for student well-being; foster stronger competence in new students for managing college transition; explore mental health training for campus housing Residence Assistants (RAs); expand outreach support to international students, transfer students, first generation students, veterans, and other vulnerable populations; expand opportunities for physical fitness and prioritize fundraising for fitness facilities; regulate application-based student organizations; incentivize student organizations to offer well-being programming; improve sense of belonging for students in campus housing; promote alcohol-free activities and night programming; expand campus and off-campus spaces for programming and social interaction; and establish a task force to promote Cornell pride and create new traditions.
Help-Seeking Behavior and People in Need of Care
Student demand for mental health services at Cornell exceeds expected use, according to the report. Yet, it said, students still express reluctance to seek mental health care. Among the reasons cited by students were lack of time, cultural aversion to help-seeking, negative experiences with help-seeking, confidentiality concerns, perceptions that their symptoms were “not bad enough,” and that “everyone is stressed” at Cornell.
The report said that while it is critical that all members of the university community play a part in recognizing and responding to students in distress and to those who could benefit from proactive intervention, faculty, staff, and students all expressed uncertainty about their roles and abilities to do so.
The report made 10 recommendations for promoting help-seeking behaviors. Among them: develop a single comprehensive source of information about health, mental health, and well-being; ensure all new students receive information about recognizing mental illness and support resources; use orientation materials to equip parents to recognize signs of distress, reduce stigma, and encourage help-seeking behavior; create a pre-departure guide for international students with information about arrival logistics, finances, the academic system, and mental health; implement a mental health awareness campaign; create a social media platform where faculty, staff, and students can model help-seeking behavior through sharing personal experiences; develop a comprehensive strategy for mitigating the intersection of mental health and alcohol use; and establish a protocol for students to notify faculty of health or well-being issues that affect attendance or work completion.
For identifying and supporting students in need the report made seven specific recommendations, including: improve the experience for students taking, being on, and returning from Health Leaves of Absence; increase the number of sexual victim advocates; improve the system for handling “Students of Concern”; develop a “Big Red Folder” as a quick reference guide for all faculty, staff, TAs, and RAs to assist students in distress; and increase staff resources at the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives to offer enhanced mental health training for faculty and staff.
Executive Accountability Committee
According to the Cornell Chronicle, the seven-member Executive Accountability Committee will oversee three teams focused on “implementing efforts in key areas – academic community, campus community and clinical services.” The committee is being led by Vice President Ryan Lombardi; Kathryn Boor, dean of the Cornell Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education; Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education; and Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being.
“Moving forward to implement change will require careful reevaluation of our university priorities as well as changes within our policies and systems,” Boor said in an October 22 article in the Chronicle. “Implementing key recommendations will help to improve the well-being of our community, and more specifically, the well-being of our undergraduate, graduate and professional students.”
In September 2018, the Office of President Martha E. Pollack published a plan for a comprehensive review of student mental health services. Lombardi shared the decision in an email to students; and, in an email to the Cornell Daily Sun,said it “reflects the University’s commitment to promoting health and well-being as a foundation for academic and personal success.”
In an April 2017 letter, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, who founded The Sophie Fund after their daughter Sophie, a Cornell student, died by suicide in 2016, called on the Cornell president to “establish an independent, external-led task force on student mental health without delay to review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students and the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them, and to make recommendations to the Cornell president to ensure that the university is adopting and implementing current best practices.” They repeated the request in August 2018.
Responding in a letter on September 20, 2018, Pollack said that Cornell would conduct a “comprehensive review” and thanked MacLeod and Hack “for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.”
The Sophie Fund gave a presentation with 22 recommendations last January 15 to the Mental Health Review teams.
The Sophie Fund, briefing the Cornell University Mental Health Review teams this week, issued 22 recommendations for improving the institution’s student mental health conditions and services.
Entrance to Cornell Health, Cornell University
Highlights of the recommendations include: aim for a student mental health “gold standard”; avoid excessive academic and social stress levels; upgrade clinical psychological counseling services; rationalize referrals to overburdened community mental health providers; effectively fight sexual assault and hazing; implement a student-centered health leave of absence policy; print the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number on student ID cards; create an ombuds for student mental health; and establish a Standing Committee on Student Mental Health to regularly review Cornell’s practices.
“Cornell, in common with probably all institutions of higher education, is confronted by a student mental health crisis,” said Scott MacLeod, co-founder of The Sophie Fund, speaking in a video conference call with the heads of the Mental Health Review Committee and External Review Team. “In our increasingly complicated world, college students are dealing with immense pressures during a transitional time in their lives and at an age when they are vulnerable to the onset of mental illness.”
“Much more needs to be done by institutions of higher education—including Cornell—to address those challenges. We need to better support the legions of students who are struggling with anxiety and depression and other disorders so that their mental health experiences do not break their trajectory toward successful and fulfilling lives.”
MacLeod added that “leadership is the ultimate key to successfully addressing the crisis, especially given the complexities around mental health and the complexities of managing an extremely large institution. Leadership will make all the difference in whether Cornell achieves real progress in better supporting student mental health, or tinkers around the margins with no tangible and sustainable improvement.”
Cornell’s “comprehensive review of student mental health,” announced in 2018 by President Martha E. Pollack, is taking place throughout the 2019-2020 academic year. According to Cornell’s website, the internal Mental Health Review Committee “is tasked with examining the Cornell campus context, including issues pertaining to the academic and social environment, climate, and culture related to mental health.” The External Review Team “is charged with a comprehensive review of clinical services and campus-based strategies.”
Detailed highlights of The Sophie Fund’s recommendations:
Cornell leadership should humbly acknowledge the existence of the crisis and the systemic challenges that must be overcome, and commit to working vigorously and transparently with all stakeholders to address the crisis.
Cornell leadership should aim for a student mental health gold standard, sparing no effort or expense in finding ways to successfully address the student mental health crisis. The crisis demands a gold standard, not a band aid.
Cornell leadership should provide and be held accountable for student mental health resources that are commensurate with the challenges, sufficient to support best practices, and in proportion with spending on other institutional priorities.
Cornell leadership should implement a cross-campus framework for supporting student mental health and wellness, with the aim of 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.
Administrators, deans, and department chairs must be fully engaged in avoiding excessive academic and social stress levels; providing reasonable accommodations for mental health and other disabilities; encouraging help-seeking behaviors; offering meaningful mentoring, advising, and tutoring; providing healthy residence life conditions; promoting resilience and coping skills; and in generally creating the “caring community” that Cornell aspires to be.
All faculty and staff should be provided with a “Gold Folder”—a one-page chart on recognizing signs of distress related to mental health or sexual assault, how to engage students in distress, and how to guide them to professional help.
Deans should be responsible for knowing the identities of Students of Concern and closely following their cases.
Administrators, deans, and department chairs must be engaged in identifying and supporting at-risk students.
Psychological clinical services must be upgraded to ensure that every student who needs help gets the best possible support, and that no student falls through the cracks of an overburdened and distracted healthcare system.
Cornell leadership should cease the practice of outsourcing student mental health treatment based on overburdened campus services. If more campus services are needed, then they should be provided.
Cornell should ensure that referrals to community providers are made solely on the basis of student preference, and are made to providers who are capable of accepting new clients and have been fully vetted.
Cornell leadership should develop and publish a comprehensive suicide prevention policy incorporating current and anticipated best practices, including the Zero Suicide Model in healthcare, and mandatory training in suicide prevention tools for gatekeepers including RAs, deans, department heads, and academic advisors.
Cornell leadership should develop new and effective strategies to combat the serious problems of sexual assault and hazing within its student body.
Cornell leadership should develop new and effective strategies for addiction prevention, intervention, treatment, and recovery support.
Cornell leadership should institute a mandatory online education module prior to freshman registration that provides students with information about mental health risk factors and warning signs, Cornell data related to student mental health, and resources for receiving support.
Cornell leadership should create and implement a leave of absence policy that prioritizes the interests of the student over those of the institution, and is designed to fully safeguard students’ health, academic, financial interests, and successful life trajectory. Cornell leadership must fully support students throughout the leave process—i.e., before, during, and after leaves are taken.
Cornell leadership should create an ombuds position to serve as an independent campus advocate for student mental health rights and to provide practical assistance to students navigating the university’s healthcare system and academic accommodations.
Cornell leadership should provide an effective factual presentation about student mental health risks and responses to parents of all incoming students before or during freshman orientation.
Psychological counselors and academic advisors should encourage struggling students to consult their parents and include them in discussions related to important decisions such as health leaves of absence.
Cornell leadership should leverage online platforms including Internet websites and social media accounts to deliver effective mental health education, effectively fight stigma and encourage help-seeking behavior, and most importantly, effectively provide resources for addressing mental health crises.
Cornell should print the telephone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline on student ID cards.
Cornell leadership should establish a Standing Committee on Student Mental Health including a range of key campus stakeholders to regularly review Cornell’s policies and practices and issue annual reports on identified needs for continued quality improvement.