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.

IMG_4294

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.

IMG_0079

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.”

IMG_2077-1

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

IMG_0057

IMG_0052

IMG_0077

IMG_2074-1

IMG_2076-1

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.

47062102_2256667474426766_7830279113561604096_n

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

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: Q&A With Kelly Jensen

(Don’t) Call Me Crazy: 33 Voices Start the Conversation About Mental Health is a new anthology that aims to get young people opening up about their inner struggles. Editor Kelly Jensen collected personal mental health stories from a range of writers, including Shaun David Hutchinson, Libba Bray, Adam Silvera, and Kristen Bell. “Jensen brought together sharp and vivid perspectives concerning mental-health challenges,” commented the Washington Post. “This book asks questions and provides real-life experiences and hope for the future.”

kj3 copy

Kelly Jensen speaking at Buffalo Street Books

Jensen, a writer and editor for Book Riot and a former teen librarian, was a featured speaker on November 4 in The Sophie Fund’s “Readings on Mental Health” series hosted by the Mental Health Association in Tompkins County at Buffalo Street Books. She spoke to The Sophie Fund’s Margaret McKinnis about her work.

THE SOPHIE FUND: How did you come to this project?

KELLY JENSEN: I started by wanting to do an anthology on feminism. I put that together and it came out in early 2017. I’ve always struggled with my own mental health, so this is something that’s always sort of been in the back of my head. There was an essay in the feminism book about mental health, and I realized as I was reading—“Oh, there’s a whole book here.”

I had studied writing and psychology in college, and it sort of blended the two. I realized there’s nothing out there that talks about mental health for younger readers in a way that’s conversational rather than statistical. Statistics and numbers are important, but I know what was helpful for me was reading people’s narratives and hearing these stories about what they’ve done and how they’ve experienced their mental challenges. I wanted to compile as much as I could from a wide range of voices to show there’s no “one way.” That was sort of the way it came together. I proposed it to my editor of the feminist one and they were like, “Yes! Let’s do this.”

THE SOPHIE FUND: What was the process of gathering all of these stories?

KELLY JENSEN: My day job is working as an editor for a book website, so I read a lot and have a lot of contacts for people who write. I reached out to some people who I knew had written about their mental health experiences in some capacity, rather than reaching out to any author and asking, “Do you want to talk about this super personal thing?” These people had talked about it before, so there was some level of understanding of what that would be like. It’s not easy and it’s not fun.

And then from there, I expanded to look outside the writing world because mental health impacts all kinds of people. I did some research to find some pieces that were out there already and went to see if I could reprint some of them. There’s a piece in there from Reid Ewing who’s on Modern Family. He had this brilliant piece about body dysmorphic disorder and being addicted to plastic surgery.

Then there were a couple pieces that were fresh. One of the other contributors had a contact with someone in the music industry, so MILCK (who wrote the anthem for the Women’s March) wrote this brilliant piece that was a letter to her 14-year-old self about confidence but also about her struggles with anxiety and eating disorders. It was essentially a beautiful love letter to get through it. And then there’s a piece in there, too, from Nancy Kerrigan. She wrote this piece on believing in yourself and the ways she has found confidence in herself. And I was like, “Oh this is perfect,” especially thinking about 13- and 14-year-olds who are still figuring it out. I was just grateful she could put something like that in.

The biggest challenge was putting the pieces in an order that made any sort of sense. With the feminism book, there were some clear themes that emerged throughout, but with mental health there was not a great theme that worked, and trying to create a theme didn’t feel right. I want everyone to go into the book and get what they get out of it and not have me as an editor tell them what they should be getting. The big theme I found going through was finding this spot of being okay. Maybe not great. Maybe not bad. But right in that middle of being okay. When I found that as sort of the way of piecing it together, I also found a way of grouping the essays together.

THE SOPHIE FUND: I know the book is a little multimedia with some art pieces. Was that your intention from the beginning or did it come after the fact?

KELLY JENSEN: I knew I wanted to do it a like a scrapbook style, so I knew I would end up using art. There are so many ways to tell a story, and with such a range of experiences, art just feels like a natural way of getting there.

I wanted it to be a book people would want to look at rather than a textbook. I mean there’s heavy stuff in there, but I don’t want to people to feel like they’re going to be miserable reading it. And yeah it’s challenging to read at times, but I think the comics and the design my publishers put behind it really makes it a more enjoyable reading experience.

THE SOPHIE FUND: The invitational aspect of the book seems to mirror this idea of normalizing the conversation around mental health, and I’m wondering as the book has become a part of the world, how it has become a part of that conversation?

KELLY JENSEN: The book came out a little over a month ago, and I’ve been going nonstop since. It’s been really interesting because it’s forced me to think about my own experiences in a way I never thought I would.

I have done a bunch of high school events with hundreds of hundreds of kids, which has been awesome. A lot of them ask me things like, “How do I determine if it’s stress versus an actual problem?” It’s nice to sit down with somebody and say okay the fact that you’re even asking this is step one and that’s when you can talk to someone you trust and say, “Okay here’s what I am experiencing—what do you think?”

I’ve gotten a lot of questions about what I think society-wise is causing this. In part mental illness stems from culture, but it’s also biological and just happens. There’s not any set reason. Often someone asks that because they have a theory, and sometimes you just have to say that could be part of it, but there’s no one cause, just like there’s no one treatment or course to fix anybody.

It changes community by community, too. I did an event at the beginning of October in a fairly conservative community in Wisconsin, but they have a whole commission that is focused on mental health and so the conversation in their community it not new or fresh. They’ve been having it. It’s interesting to go and talk to those kids and hear their questions and then go to a school where that’s not the case, and they have very different questions like, “How do we break the stigma? How do we talk about this?” It’s fascinating.

If the conversation is normalized, if it’s a conversation that’s happening, it’s easier to then talk about versus if it’s not talked about at all you don’t even have the language to start.

THE SOPHIE FUND: It seems like access to language is a theme that comes out of these conversations. It seems so necessary for us to be able to differentiate between these different experiences.

KELLY JENSEN: I have a really complicated relationship with the word crazy because sometimes well-meaning people can say they’re not going to use that word because of what it can stand for. But they stop there. They don’t take it further and have a conversation about mental health or do something that could further their sense of mental health care. I get annoyed because that doesn’t solve the problem, it just removes the word from your language, and ultimately from you having to think about it or stop and consider the bigger implications of the word. There’s not one way to talk about your approach to mental health, but you have to talk about it to even to get to that point where you can even discuss these nuances.

THE SOPHIE FUND: I know it’s only been out for a month, but what was your vision for the impact?

KELLY JENSEN: The school district that I talked about earlier who brought me in had community reads. They bought hundreds of copies of the book that they could distribute to students and adults in the community. They ran a number of book clubs throughout the month. They did all kinds of events centered around mental health, and they used this book because the pieces were short and persona. If more communities were able to create this culture of communication and openness, and have it come from the community itself, it trickles down. Then kids know they have permission.

I would love to see more people using it as tool to start talking, even it’s only one or two pieces and that’s all that resonates or all they use, that still gets the conversation starting.

DontCallMeCrazy

THE SOPHIE FUND: I think there’s something to be said for having something that mediates the conversation and gives context so you aren’t starting from square one.

KELLY JENSEN: It’s a vulnerable conversation to have, too.

I was so excited when The Sophie Fund ask me to come here because what a cool opportunity to have stories take the center. I think if you start with other people’s narratives it does get easier to break into a conversation around it.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have a mental health philosophy?

KELLY JENSEN: I don’t know if I have a mental health philosophy. I think I have a fascination with it. I think there’s value in being fascinated by what your mind does and what your experiences are, and the metanarrative about what you think about what you’re thinking, which is hard to think about it.

THE SOPHIE FUND: Do you have any other things that you’d like to talk about with the book or even just about your views on mental health in general?

KELLY JENSEN: Mental health is trial and error. There were a number of people who said to me it might take you forever to find a medication that works for you or might work for you for a little bit and then stop working. My experience was the first medication was perfect. Your personal experience might not mirror other’s advice.

The hard part of it all is if you try to hold this idea that every experience is valid and has the nuances that it does, it can just get overwhelming. Culturally we have defined what “normal” generally looks like, but most people don’t fall in that.

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

Mental Health Hazards of the Restaurant World

Katy McLaughlin and Natalia V. Osipova have published an illuminating multimedia piece in the Wall Street Journal about the serious mental health hazards of working in the pressure-cooker restaurant trade.

journal-suicide

The article features Charles Ford, the general manager of a high-end restaurant in Chicago, who was shaken to action following the suicide last June of industry icon and former chef Anthony Bourdain.

Ford said that restaurant workers with suicidal impulses and other emotional crises often hide their pain, and revealed that he had slashed his wrists on three occasions between late 2015 and spring 2016. “I don’t want to hide it anymore,” Ford, 31, told the Journal. “We need to do everything we can to turn this around, and the first step is saying it out loud.”

The story quotes celebrity chef Cat Cora (“Iron Chef”) saying: “We are dealing with an epidemic of mental illness in our industry.”

A few highlights from the article:

The brutal nature of restaurant-kitchen culture is part of the problem, many in the industry say. Physical and emotional toughness is prized and workplace conventions like 40-hour workweeks, breaks and professional courtesy can be foreign concepts. At the same time, young people raised watching “Top Chef” and Food Network now enter the profession with high expectations—and debt loads—once rare in this largely blue-collar field. …

The food industry often draws non-conformist, Type-A perfectionists attracted to the unusual hours and the camaraderie of a kitchen crew… However, that spirit can lead to an unhealthy partying lifestyle. …

Young cooks’ heightened expectations don’t always take into account low wages or difficult labor… Dreams of fame and fortune have driven growth in culinary schools and programs and encouraged thousands of students to finance this education with debt. …

Restaurant cooks make a median wage of $12.10 an hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Culinary-school graduates are no exception, even at top-tier restaurants in expensive cities, a number of restaurateurs say. While some top chefs can earn six figures, the median annual wage for chefs and head cooks is $45,950, according to the BLS. …

The industry’s long hours, intense work, high stress and scarcity of employer-subsidized health insurance are all classic contributors to mental and behavioral health problems, says David Ballard, the head of the American Psychological Association’s Center for Organizational Excellence. …

The article notes how trade groups to individual restaurateurs alike have launched efforts to support the mental health of restaurant workers:

—The owner of a Denver bakery co-founded a group called Culinary Hospitality Outreach & Wellness—CHOW, for short—which hosts weekly gatherings for industry members to talk about coping mechanisms and stress management.

—A restaurant owner co-founded Ben’s Friends, a group for restaurant workers to discuss substance abuse, with chapters around the country and named after a chef who died by suicide.

—The National Restaurant Association started a health plan in partnership with UnitedHealthcare that offers medical and mental health coverage.

—The American Culinary Federation started a group health insurance program for members for the first time this year.

—Unilever Food Solutions started FairKitchens, an initiative aimed at changing the culture that includes a code of conduct for restaurants to sign onto.