Send Silence Packing @ Ithaca College

Backpacks were scattered all over Ithaca College’s Emerson Suites on Monday. No, this high-traffic space wasn’t a convenient dumping ground for students taking mid-terms or heading to the cafeteria for a meal. The backpacks were a powerful exhibition called “Send Silence Packing,” a suicide prevention initiative traveling to American college campuses. The 1,100 backpacks represent the average number of college students who die by suicide every year.

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“Send Silence Packing” is a project of Active Minds, a national organization promoting student mental health through branch chapters at colleges around the county. Ithaca College’s chapter, led by co-presidents Zoe Howland and Mikaela Vojnik, hosted Monday’s exhibition in Emerson Suites.

The display is immersive and thought provoking. Each backpack includes a personal story or a quote from someone who has lost a loved to suicide. “I feel like the visual display really invokes a certain feeling that just talking about it doesn’t necessarily do,” Howland said.

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“There were a lot of people who came through on the way to their classes and were really intrigued with all the stories that were on the backpacks,” said Active Minds member Kristin Butler. She said that the event was an opportunity for “continuing the conversation on campus, which is great.”

Junior anthropology major Paige Twinning commented: “Powerful and important. The visual representation and personal profiles of individuals really made an impact.”

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“Send Silence Packing,” which has visited almost 200 campuses and reached nearly a million people, is intended to generate discussions about suicide and provide information about suicide prevention resources.

Ithaca College’s day-long event, sponsored in part by The Sophie Fund, began at 7:30 a.m. and included an evening Speak Your Mind panel discussion on suicide prevention moderated by Active Minds member Kelly Madden. Participating in the panel were representatives from key local mental health organizations, including the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, Mental Health Association in Tompkins County, National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Finger Lakes, and the Advocacy Center. Said Kaylee McGillicuddy, a sophomore psychology major: “It’s just nice to know there are people who care.”

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Based on surveys, the Active Minds national organization reports that most people attending the “Send Silence Packing” installation are left wanting to know more about mental health, and 95 percent of attendees rate the experience as powerful.

Active Minds has chapters or other operations on more than 600 college campuses across the country. In June, a study of Active Minds published in the Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry reported that student peer organizations’ activities can improve college student mental health attitudes and perceived knowledge and significantly increase helping behaviors.

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The Fall 2015 National College Health Assessment, in a survey of 19,861 students at more than 40 American schools, reported that 35.3 percent “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.”

According to the 2017 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, data collected from 147 college counseling centers showed that 34.2 percent of 161,014 college students seeking counseling in the 2016–17 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” The rate increased for the seventh year in a row, up from 24 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 10 percent of the students seeking counseling had actually made a suicide attempt.

—By Margaret McKinnis

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.

[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.]

New Voice for Mental Health

Greetings and welcome to Tiffanie Chai, a new contributor to the Ithaca Voice, whose bi-weekly column “Within the Bell Jar,” discusses mental health, mental illness, and disabilities. She gives us a taste of what’s to come in her first piece this week, promising “a fresh take on mental health.”

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Tiffanie Chai (credit: Ithaca Voice)

Chai is wary of reliance on top-down approaches to mental health, arguing that initiatives by institutions to “raise mental health awareness” largely do so in a way that is attractive to their audiences and end up failing to combat structural stigma. So Chai is a breed of mental health advocate who fights the stigma by empowering people experiencing mental health struggles to tell their stories and to thus educate the rest of us.

An excerpt from Chai’s first column:

I do understand why the intricacies of mental illness can be difficult to comprehend for individuals who aren’t familiar with these issues. We are so used to equating disease with physically observable symptoms that the idea of certain disorders exhibiting themselves as behavioral changes can be hard to digest. However, most people will never feel comfortable bringing up their mental health issues regardless of how many times they’re told that “it’s time to talk about mental health.”

I want to paint the painfully raw stories possessed by people who are mentally ill as realistically as possible—the ones kept from the public eye because they’d make others feel uncomfortable. Good. I want you to be. It means you’re learning. As my twin flame Sylvia Plath once wrote, “To the person in the bell jar, blank and stopped as a dead baby, the world itself is a bad dream.”

Lansing Forum on Mental Health and Bullying

Mental health and bullying continue to be important issues facing our Lansing School District. The schools as well as the Board of Education are taking them very seriously. Social and Emotional Learning (SEL) is being taught in health classes. A survey is being sent out to ask the students for their views on the bullying issue and ideas on how to handle it.

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Yet, it is clear that what is currently being done is not sufficient. Many feel that the problem is getting worse. We need to address these issues as a community and work toward solutions. Together, we need to do what we can to create a safer and mentally healthy school community. It takes a village.

Toward that end, a community forum, “Mental Health & Bullying” will be held on Thursday October 18 at 7 p.m. in the Lansing Town Hall. This is an opportunity for all of us to share experiences, discuss perspectives, and work on solutions.

Among the ideas we might consider is The Be Kind People Project, which offers “unique and culturally relevant youth development programs that effectively combine academics, character education, nutrition, fitness, digital citizenship, civic awareness, teacher appreciation, and family engagement.”

Another idea worth discussing is launching a student mental health club, a platform being used at hundreds of secondary schools and on college campuses across the country. Newfield High School has a very active chapter of Sources of Strength. Ithaca High School is in the process of establishing a high school chapter of Active Minds, and Ithaca College has long had a robust chapter as well. A recent study found that across 12 California colleges, student-run efforts were associated with increased awareness of mental health issues, reduced stigma, and a rise in “helping behaviors.”

—By Beth Hogan Callister

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.

Cornell President Promises Holistic Review of Student Mental Health

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack says that Cornell will be conducting a “comprehensive review” of student mental health, possibly beginning in early 2019. She says the “team” at Cornell Health had advocated for the review “to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus.”

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Cornell University campus

Pollack’s statement came in a letter dated September 20 to Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the co-founders of The Sophie Fund. In a letter dated August 23, they had called on Pollack to “appoint without further delay an independent, external-led task force to review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students, and the university’s policies, practices, and programs to address them; and to make recommendations to the Cornell President to ensure that the university is implementing current best practices.”

MacLeod and Hack published their letter to Pollack in a blog post on September 8 headlined, “Time for a Mental Health Task Force at Cornell.”

In her reply to the MacLeod/Hack letter, Pollack said: “We will be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell… The team at Cornell Health—those in both clinical and educational roles—have advocated for this review to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus.”

Pollack said that Cornell Health “will work with the campus community” beginning this semester “to determine the appropriate scope for this review, which could potentially begin in early 2019.”

Pollack thanked MacLeod and Hack “for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.”

Pollack’s letter did not respond directly to MacLeod/Hack’s request for an “independent, external-led” review. In their letter, they wrote: “The independent task force should be led by a recognized public health expert with a strong background in mental health and without any current or previous ties to Cornell or to organizations and professional associations focused on collegiate mental health.”

In a September 18 email to Cornell students reported by the Cornell Daily Sun, Vice President Ryan Lombardi announced plans for “a comprehensive review of student mental health” that will bring together “internal and external partners.”

In a September 18 email to the Sun, Lombardi said: “While for many years the university has engaged in regular assessment of student mental health needs and evaluation of services and programs, the decision to pursue an additional comprehensive review of student mental health reflects the University’s commitment to promoting health and well-being as a foundation for academic and personal success.”

In a statement to the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly (GPSA) on September 24 reported by the Sun, Lombardi said he “can’t speak … to exactly who” will be conducting the review but that the administration does “envision it being external audiences.”

“I think part of the first step is to understand what we want to look at, and then I think that will really inform that broader question about who’s best to come in,” he said. “Obviously I think we’re going to want people to have expertise in mental health. I don’t want that just to be Cornell folks.”

In her letter to MacLeod and Hack, Pollack noted that the intention to conduct a comprehensive review was cited in an update about “diversity and inclusion” initiatives posted on the Office of the President’s website, apparently in early September, and announced in Lombardi’s email to students on September 18. The reference read as follows:

Conduct a comprehensive review of student mental health.

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.

MacLeod and Hack, whose daughter Sophie (’14) died by suicide while on a health leave of absence in 2016, initially wrote to Pollack on April 19, 2017 detailing their concerns about “systemic failure” in Cornell’s institutional handling of mental health matters, and calling on her to launch an independent task force review. However, in a letter to MacLeod and Hack on January 11, 2018, Pollack declined their request, citing an “external assessment” 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.”

MacLeod and Hack said that they wrote to Pollack in August asking her to reverse her decision after studying the JED review and finding it “plainly insufficient.” They said a glaring omission was the lack of any reference in findings or recommendations regarding the capacity of the Counseling and Psychological Services staff to meet the demands of students for services. Another omission, they said, was the lack of any reference to the capacity of community mental health providers to address the needs of Cornell students referred to those off-campus services by CAPS. They said that the JED-review documents reported no findings and recommendations in areas such as academic workloads and faculty and academic staff handling of students in distress, and appeared to lack a comprehensive assessment of Cornell’s suicide prevention policies and practices.

MacLeod and Hack also questioned the independence of the review, pointing out that institutions of higher education pay The JED Foundation a fee to become what JED calls “partners” in the JED Campus program. They also said that the JED review entailed only one on-site campus visit by a JED External Contributor, one that lasted merely three hours and did not include meetings with any of the community providers who receive many CAPS referrals. They also said it appeared that Cornell had not released all relevant documents pertaining to the JED review.

In response to Pollack’s September 20 letter, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement:

“We welcome President Pollack’s personal engagement and specifically her commitment to conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell. We commend Cornell Health for advocating for this review “to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus,” as President Pollack said. Lastly, we are encouraged to know that the Cornell administration will consult with students and other members of the community as the review proceeds.

“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.”

The full September 20, 2018 letter from President Pollack:

Dear Ms. Hack and Mr. MacLeod,

Thank you for your letter dated august 23, 2018, and for your care and concern for the mental health and well-being of Cornell students.

As you may have seen in our recently announced diversity and inclusion initiatives (https://president.cornell.edu/diversity-and-inclusion-initiatives/), we will be conducting a comprehensive review of student mental health at Cornell. Beginning this semester, Cornell Health will work with the campus community to determine the appropriate scope for this review, which could potentially begin in early 2019. Vice president Lombardi also shared this news with our students in a message sent on September 18, along with other updates and investments in mental health support services.

The team at Cornell Health—those in both clinical and educational roles—have advocated for this review to provide an opportunity to look holistically at mental health on our campus. We also continue to engage with and support mental health resources in the larger community.

Thank you again for reaching out to me and for your advocacy for providing the best possible environment to support the mental health of Cornell students.

Sincerely,

Martha E. Pollack