Suicide on the Campus: A Task Force, a Death, and a Lawsuit

Legal counsel, risk managers, counseling centers, and student mental health advocates at colleges in Ithaca and across the nation will be monitoring a new lawsuit that asserts that the University of Pennsylvania’s failure to provide “any meaningful help, support and safety net” led to the suicide of 21-year-old business school student Ao “Olivia” Kong. The lawsuit seeks to hold Penn’s trustees accountable for “reckless disregard” in failing to follow best practices for suicide prevention, contending that the university “had a duty to ensure her safety and wellbeing and protect her from harm.” In asserting the university’s negligence, the lawsuit says “Penn didn’t just fail her, it killed her.”

oliviakong

Ao “Olivia” Kong (Source: Feldman Shepherd)

In the spring of 2016, according to the lawsuit filed on April 10 in Philadelphia County’s Court of Common Pleas, Kong became despondent while struggling with an academic overload and symptoms of anxiety, depression, insomnia, and anorexia during the second semester of her junior year. The 3.3 GPA student feared that she might fail a course, and jeopardize her financial aid as well as an upcoming paid summer internship with Bank of America, the lawsuit says.

Born in China, Kong had immigrated to the United States at age 9 with her parents and became one of the top students in the Philadelphia public school system. She placed first in national math contests and city science fairs; played violin in the school orchestra; was a member of the drama club, varsity tennis squad, and newspaper editorial board; and volunteered in community service organizations. She won early admission to Penn’s prestigious Wharton School, Class of 2017; Wharton is ranked as the No. 1 undergraduate business school in the United States, with annual tuition and fees of $53,534.

Kong was struck and killed by a SEPTA train in West Philadelphia in the early morning of Monday April 11, 2016. The lawsuit brought by her parents contends that in seeking help amidst a mental health crisis from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Student Health Center, and the Wharton School, Kong communicated that she was suicidal to Penn professionals on at least nine occasions between April 7 and April 9.

According to the lawsuit, Kong’s suicidal thoughts were expressed directly or indirectly to a CAPS psychiatrist on four occasions; a CAPS clinician; a CAPS social worker; a Wharton academic advisor; and on a CAPS intake form and a school petition for a course withdrawal.

The four-count lawsuit, which alleges negligence, wanton and willful misconduct, reckless disregard, and includes a wrongful death claim and a survival action, reads as a scathing indictment of Penn’s academic pressures and mental health policies and practices as well as of its institutional mindset. It labels the suicides at Penn a “worsening epidemic,” stating that Kong had been the tenth Penn student to die by suicide in three years, and another four have taken their own lives in the two years since then.

“So long as Penn refuses to adequately address the academic and personal stresses underlying these suicides, and take appropriate measures to protect its students from the harms associated with those stresses, it willfully and recklessly exposes its students to an extraordinarily high risk of suicide,” the lawsuit says.

It goes on: “Similarly, Penn’s abject failure to hire competent and qualified professionals to assist its students in managing their stress and/or enact and implement policies designed to ensure the safety, physical and mental wellbeing of its students, constitutes a reckless disregard and callous indifference to the safety, health and wellbeing of its students.”

The lawsuit alleges Penn’s repeated failures to follow best practices related to suicide prevention, including:

— Failure to provide outreach and support programs and to formulate, implement, and enforce policies, practices, and guidelines that comply with current professional standards and nationally established criteria and/or best practices “to reduce academic stress and the risk of suicide”;

—Failure to formulate, implement, and enforce policies, practices, and guidelines to address the warning signs of suicide in students-in-crisis, including those suffering from academic stress; and to assess and treat students with suicide ideation;

—Failure to hire, retain, and ensure that the persons overseeing, supervising, administering, and providing psychological services are aware of and/or comply with best practices for suicide prevention;

—Failure to waive patient confidentiality to inform parents when a student was in imminent danger of suicide;

—Failure to dedicate sufficient resources to reduce the risk of, and prevent, suicides.

The lawsuit slates Penn for other failures, including:

——Failure to formulate, implement, and enforce policies, practices, and guidelines to assess and treat students-in-crisis, including those suffering from academic stress;

—Failure to ensure that information about Penn’s mental health resources is easily accessible to people providing the services and to its students;

—Failure to hire, retain, and ensure that the persons overseeing, supervising, administering, and providing psychological services are aware of Penn’s programs and resources for students-in-crisis;

—Failure to provide adequate procedures for late withdrawal from courses; taking leaves of absence; reducing unmanageable course loads; managing student distress caused by unmanageable course loads; and receiving tutoring services.

Academic Stress and Anxiety

The lawsuit says that Kong was afraid of failing a course, and was frustrated by hurdles in the way of dropping it and by her inability to get academic tutoring. She first reported academic stress, anxiety, lack of sleep, and inability to concentrate during a visit to the Student Health Center on March 30, according to the lawsuit. The attending physician attributed Kong’s signs and symptoms to an upper respiratory infection and fever, and failed to address her academic stress and anxiety or refer her to any university resources for students experiencing such conditions, the lawsuit says.

A week later, after her physical and mental health deteriorated, the lawsuit goes on, Kong placed a call in a state of distress to the after-hours CAPS number at around 1:30 a.m. on April 7. She reportedly told the on-call psychiatrist that she was anxious and afraid of failing a class, unable to sleep, and had experienced a panic attack, feelings of self-hatred, and suicidal thoughts. The lawsuit alleges that the psychiatrist dismissed Kong’s academic fears as “run of the mill” for undergraduates and discussed how CAPS could assist her in dropping the course during regular business hours.

According to the lawsuit, later that day she went to CAPS and conveyed her academic anxiety and current suicidal thoughts on the intake form as well as to a social worker—with whom she also shared her feelings of depression and shame and idea of taking an overdose of sleeping pills as the method of killing herself. The social worker concluded that Kong had no actual intention or means of taking her own life, the lawsuit says. It adds that the social worker scheduled Kong for a follow-up CAPS appointment four days later at 3 p.m. on April 11—by then, Kong had died as the result of blunt force trauma.

Still later on April 7, Kong met with a Wharton advisor, mentioned her past suicide ideation, and filed a petition for late withdrawal from an upper-level course. She explained that she was “struggling with the class and it is causing me to become depressed. I have not been able to sleep for the past week.” She concluded the petition by stating she has “thoughts of suicide.”

According to the lawsuit, after the Wharton advisor alerted CAPS about her meeting with Kong, the CAPS social worker sent Kong an email reminding her of her CAPS appointment the following Monday afternoon April 11; she also said that in the meantime Kong had the options of visiting or calling CAPS during regular business hours, contacting the CAPS after-hours clinician, or calling a national suicide hotline 24/7.

On Saturday evening April 9, after a Penn graduate assistant alerted CAPS of his concern about Kong, the CAPS psychiatrist reportedly spoke with her again by phone for about an hour. She had gone to spend part of the weekend at home with her parents, who were concerned about her welfare but were unaware of her expressed intention to kill herself.

According to the lawsuit, Kong told the psychiatrist of her frustration and hopelessness with Wharton’s “roadblocks” to dropping a class and exploring a leave of absence. “After telling him that ‘people aren’t listening to me,’” the lawsuit alleges, “Olivia said that she planned to return to campus the next day and kill herself.”

Kong and the psychiatrist also discussed the possibility of an inpatient psychiatric admission, which Kong was told was an option “if no other plan can work,” the lawsuit says. When Kong inquired about the expense of an emergency room visit, the lawsuit alleges, the psychiatrist remarked that “the cost of [an emergency room] is likely less than [the] cost of funeral arrangements.”

According to the lawsuit, the psychiatrist advised Kong to speak with her parents and said he would contact Wharton about her academic situation; and said if she could not make it emotionally until her Monday appointment with CAPS, she had the options of calling CAPS, dialing 911, or to “get herself to the ER.”

The lawsuit faults Penn professionals for failing due to ignorance or incompetence to refer Kong to multiple available mental health services and programs; failing to develop a treatment plan for Kong’s suicide ideation, provide psychotherapy and medication, or refer her to a local hospital or emergency room; failing to notify Kong’s parents that she was at imminent risk of self-harm, or to arrange for somebody to stay with Kong until she obtained medical help; failing to alert the police of her intention to take her own life; failing to relieve Kong of severe academic stress; failing to ensure that she was capable of handling a heavy course load.

“The failure of these multiple professionals,” the lawsuit argues, “to take adequate and proper precautions or preventative measures to adequately treat Olivia and protect her from harm during a period when they knew her articulated suicidal thoughts and plans or in the exercise of due care should have known that she was suicidal and that she was incapable of maintaining proper perspective and making sound decisions regarding her health, safety and wellbeing was the proximate cause of her suicide.”

Standards and Practices

The lawsuit does not specifically identify a source for its reference to professional standards and nationally established best practices. However, one prominent example is the 2012 National Strategy for Suicide Prevention, released by the U.S. Surgeon General, which describes goals to “promote suicide prevention as a core component of healthcare services” and to “promote and implement effective clinical and professional practices for assessing and treating those at risk for suicidal behaviors.” The strategy is meant to guide suicide prevention actions in the United States throughout the decade.

In February 2016, The Joint Commission, a body that accredits healthcare programs in the United States, issued recommendations to improve the treatment of individuals with suicide ideation. The commission urged all healthcare organizations “to develop clinical environment readiness by identifying, developing and integrating comprehensive behavioral health, primary care and community resources to assure continuity of care for individuals at risk for suicide.”

Furthermore, the commission said, “it’s imperative for healthcare providers in all settings to better detect suicide ideation in patients, and to take appropriate steps for their safety and/or refer these patients to an appropriate provider for screening, risk assessment, and treatment.”

Many experts point to the Zero Suicide Model of the Suicide Prevention Resource Center (SPRC) as a prime example of best practices; it holds that “suicide deaths for individuals under care within health and behavioral health systems are preventable.”

The question of whether universities and college counseling centers have a legal “duty of care” to prevent suicide is currently evolving. A strong legal precedent has yet to be established, due in part to the fact that many lawsuits alleging university negligence in suicide cases are settled before they reach court.

Guidance issued by SPRC notes that in successful medical malpractice lawsuits, the plaintiff proves a breach of duty of care by showing that the defendant’s act or omission fell below the standard of care and increased the risk of harm to the plaintiff. The core of a suicide case, SPRC says, is whether the suicide was “foreseeable”—that there was a reasonable anticipation that some harm or injury is likely to result from certain acts or omissions.

The Jed Foundation, with which Penn maintains a mental health review partnership, argues that “ultimately, litigation risk can be substantially reduced by following some simple advice—use good professional judgment; develop a comprehensive suicide/violence prevention program; follow written and/or unwritten policies and protocols; ensure that available mental health services are in keeping with professional codes of ethics and standards of practice.”

The Kong lawsuit also takes Penn administrators to task for the way in which they announced Kong’s death. Initially, the lawsuit says, President Amy Gutmann informed the campus community of a student death without identifying the student or the manner of death. The same day, Penn representatives allegedly told Kong’s parents as well as Wharton undergraduates that her death was an “accident.”

“Responsibility for Their Own Wellbeing”

Kong’s death occurred just a year after a high-profile Penn task force issued a report praising Penn for its “impressive” and “wide array” of mental health resources, peer-education and support groups, and singling out CAPS for providing “excellent services to a wide range of students.” The report said that the “unwavering commitment” of staff and faculty to ensuring mental health support for students was “very impressive” and “clearly evident.”

Rather, the report said, the problem was the pressures engendered by the perception among Penn students that “one has to be perfect” in every academic, co-curricular, and social endeavor. That perception can lead to stress and distress, compounded in some cases by the endemic use or misuse of alcohol or other drugs, lack of sleep, and improper nutrition, the report said.

The report emphasized that “stress is a normal part of life,” that “campuses across the country” face mental health challenges, and that college students are not statistically at a higher risk for suicide. At Penn, the report stated, “students (undergraduate, graduate, and professional) are expected to take responsibility for their own wellbeing.”

The report recognized that “during times of stress or distress, it is challenging to maintain one’s perspective and to make sound decisions about whether and to whom to turn for help.” Therefore, the report explained, “Penn has a strong and committed network of individuals and of offices that can either provide direct assistance or ensure that students are appropriately referred.”

Gutmann and Provost Vincent Price convened the task force in February 2014 shortly after two student suicides, and charged it with examining student mental health challenges; reviewing Penn’s programs, policies, and practices for addressing the challenges; and making recommendations for improvement.

The task force said there were “opportunities to further strengthen the university’s efforts” and made recommendations in four main areas: 1) communicating to students about the importance of mental health and wellbeing to their academic success; 2) making information about Penn’s mental health and wellness resources more accessible; 3) educating and training faculty, staff, students, and parents about mental health and in responding to students who need help; and 4) “optimizing” the resources the university devotes to psychological counseling.

The report cited “the limits” on the resources Penn provides to CAPS and made no recommendation to increase funding; instead, the report said that CAPS should communicate to students—as well as to staff, faculty, and students who refer students to CAPS—that CAPS is only designed to provide short-term care and make referrals to other care providers.

The Kong lawsuit, arguing that Penn failed to provide and/or dedicate sufficient resources to implement and enforce current professional standards and nationally established best practices for reducing academic stress and the risk of suicide, challenges the task force’s claim of funding limitations. “Given Penn’s $12 billion endowment, there were (and are) sufficient resources to address its continued failure to ensure the safety of its students, but for inexplicable reasons, it has failed (and continues) to do so,” the lawsuit says.

The lawsuit takes issue with the task force for “shockingly” placing “the responsibility for its students’ health and wellbeing not on the professionals associated with those offices and programs but on the students themselves” and for concluding “that the problem did not lie with those programs and resources but in persuading students to use them.” The lawsuit says “the ultimate irony” is that Kong “not only sought help from all of the resources available to her, but she also specifically communicated her suicidal thoughts and plans, all to no avail.”

Nevertheless, the lawsuit adds, the task force report established that “Penn was clearly aware that the highly competitive academic stresses it placed upon its students not only increased their risk of developing depression and anxiety but decreased their ability to maintain proper perspective and make sounds decisions about their safety, health and wellbeing thereby increasing their risk of committing suicide.”

The lawsuit blames Penn for failing to ensure that the members of the task force were “qualified” or that its findings and conclusions complied with current professional standards and nationally established best practices to reduce academic stress and the risk of suicide. The lawsuit accuses Penn of failing to ensure that “the entire Penn community” was aware of and complied with the findings, recommendations, and conclusions of the task force.

The lawsuit criticizes Penn for excluding students from the task force reviewing the university’s mental health policies and practices; the 10 task force members were all Penn senior administrators and academic officers, including five vice presidents and vice provosts, and a number of current and former deans and department chairs.

In response to the Kong lawsuit, a university spokesperson told local media that Penn does not comment on pending litigation.

After Kong’s suicide, Penn reconvened the mental health task force in 2016 but did not release a new report. According to the Daily Pennsylvanian, “the University’s task force concluded after Kong’s 2016 death that Penn’s wide array of ongoing mental health initiatives are sufficient to address the issue.” Penn’s student newspaper quoted task force co-chair Rebecca Bushnell, a former dean of arts and sciences, saying: “The task force completed its work at the end of the summer of 2016, so we have nothing new to say.”

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

Why Cornell Minds Matter

Mental Health Weekend is my last hurrah.

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

CMM copy

Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

—By Cooper Walter

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

 

Cupcake Buttons: Supporting Suicide Prevention

The Sophie Fund presented a donation check for $829.50 on Wednesday evening to the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service (SPCS) of Ithaca. Cornell University’s Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and Active Minds at Ithaca College raised the funds in The Sophie Fund’s “cupcake button” campaign last fall.

IMG_4471

Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho hands a check to Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin

Both student organizations set up fundraising tables on their campuses as well as at GreenStar Natural Food Market’s stores in the West End and Collegetown. Alpha Phi Omega also raised funds in the Ithaca Commons during the Apple Harvest Festival. The Sophie Fund selected SPCS to be the recipient of monies collected in the 2017 cupcake button campaign.

“We sincerely thank Alpha Phi Omega and Active Minds, as well as all the many people who made generous donations, for supporting the cause of suicide prevention in Tompkins County,” said Scott MacLeod, an officer of The Sophie Fund.

“The student organizations not only collected money, but they engaged meaningful conversations within their own circles and with the campus and Ithaca communities about mental health. The commitment of these organizations is nothing less than amazing. Hats off to GreenStar for allowing us to raise funds at their locations and for their tremendous support for mental health and well-being in the community.”

Alpha Phi Omega President Winnie Ho handed over the donation check in a brief ceremony to SPCS Executive Director Lee-Ellen Marvin. Ho was joined by Alpha Phi Omega members Joanna Hua, Trisha Ray, and Ashley Kim.

“As college students who have the privilege to interact with so many different organizations across our campus and in our local community, we have had the chance to see how critical it is that mental health and wellness is supported on every level,” said Ho.

“The partnership between Alpha Phi Omega Gamma Chapter and The Sophie Fund is the result of a dedication to improving mental health on collegiate campuses. We are thrilled to be working with incredible organizations such as Ithaca Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services who have done so much for students and community members. There is important work still left to be done to support our peers, but we are optimistic about the future of this collaboration.”

S. Makai Andrews, co-president of Ithaca College’s Active Minds chapter, and an intern at SPCS and The Sophie Fund, led the Active Minds effort. “We wanted to participate in the button selling as a means to increase mental health visibility in the Ithaca area and reduce the stigma surrounding these situations,” said Andrews. “We were happy to serve as examples of college-aged students who have struggled with our mental health and spoke with many interesting people in the community about what changes they would like to see in how we talk about mental health.”

“Gifts like these always give us a lift, helping us continue the work we do by reminding us that the community cares,” said Marvin. “The staff, board, and volunteers of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service are grateful for this donation because we know that it represents a big effort by student members of Alpha Phi Omega at Cornell and Active Minds at Ithaca College.”

AM-greenstar2

Peri Margolies and S. Makai Andrews of Active Minds at GreenStar Natural Foods Market during the cupcake button campaign

SPRC operates Crisisline, offering free and confidential crisis counseling, staffed 365 days a year by trained volunteers who respond to calls from Tompkins County and across the 607 area code. It also provides “The Chat,” an Internet chat service for young people who are reluctant to talk on the telephone.

The Crisisline is a member of the National Suicide Lifeline system and is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology. It is also a founding member of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition established last July.

The overall mission of SPCS is to promote constructive responses to crisis and trauma and to prevent violence to self and others through direct support and community education.

SPRC’s Education Program provides suicide prevention and mental health programs to youth and adults in public schools, colleges, and universities, and community-based settings.

Another program is After-Trauma Services, which provides free short-term counseling and support groups to those who have lost a loved one to suicide or unexpected death.

SPCS traces its history back to 1968, when Ithacans lobbied for a 24-hour crisis line following a series of suicides in the community. Reverend Jack Lewis took the first call in 1969, from a young man who felt so upset that he had decided the only solution was to kill himself. With the help of SPCS’s first volunteer counselor, the young man renewed his hope and sense of possibility.

“We’re so thankful for the essential work that SPCS does to educate the public and provide support for people struggling with mental disorders and suicidal thoughts,” said MacLeod. “Calling the Crisisline, if you or somebody you know is experiencing difficulties, can literally save a life.”

[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.]

Cornell: “We Can and Will Do More” on Mental Health

Cornell University Vice President Ryan Lombardi said in a university statement Thursday that delivery of mental health services is a top Cornell priority and that the university “can and will do more” to support student health and well-being.

RyanLombardi

Lombardi said in a statement to the in-house Cornell Chronicle that three internal reviews last fall and “other conversations” have led the administration to identify three areas “that need further attention.” These are:

—“Matching CAPS staffing levels with community expectations for timeliness and frequency of care”;

—“Investing in other key elements of the comprehensive approach to support student well-being, campus health and safety”;

—“Recruiting and retaining talented health care professionals, particularly underrepresented minority staff.”

The Chronicle reported that new resources have been allocated to grow the CAPS staff from the equivalent of 22 full-time employees in 2006 to 32 in 2018. During that same time period, the report said, the financial resources invested in CAPS have increased by more than $2.5 million.

Acknowledging studies showing that college students nationwide struggle with depression, anxiety, and thoughts of suicide, Lombardi, Cornell’s vice president for student and campus life, said:

“We know Cornellians struggle, too. We take this seriously, and are committed to supporting our students’ mental health and well-being at Cornell. While we have made great strides and many improvements over the past decade, we can and will do more. … Well-being is foundational to the student experience at Cornell, and it will remain one of my top priorities moving forward.”

According to the Chronicle report, statistics show more students at Cornell are seeking mental health care than in the past. CAPS provided care to 21 percent of Cornell students in 2016-17, up from 13 percent in 2005-06. The Chronicle quoted CAPS Director Gregory Eells saying that the increased demand is due to both an underlying rise in student distress and to students being more open to seeking care.

The Chronicle cited a survey by the National College Health Association showing that the number of students reporting depression has jumped from 32.6 percent in 2013 to 40.2 percent in 2017. In the same time period, thinking about suicide rose from 8.1 to 11.5 percent and attempted suicide from 1.3 to 1.7 percent, nationwide.

Lombardi said that last fall Cornell Health and university administrators reviewed the operating standards and capacity of Cornell Health, the strategic directions of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, and the 2017 external assessment and campus visit summary by The Jed Foundation.

The Jed Foundation is a nonprofit organization assisting schools in evaluating and strengthening mental health, substance abuse, and suicide prevention programs and systems to safeguard individual and community health. Cornell is a member of the Jed Campus program, a four-year partnership measuring systems, policies, and programs, and providing resources and support.

The Chronicle report touted Cornell’s past accomplishments and awards in student mental health:

“The university boosted the mental health framework’s visibility and reach with the establishment in 2015 of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives in Cornell Health, which develops and evaluates mental health-related strategies and provides leadership for universitywide public health initiatives, policies and coalitions.

“Cornell was awarded the JedCampus Seal by the Jed Foundation, a national organization seeking to reduce suicide rates among college students, in 2013. The university also received the Active Minds Healthy Campus Award in 2015 from Active Minds, a national nonprofit that forms peer-run groups on campuses to empower students to speak openly about mental health, educate others and encourage help-seeking. Cornell’s mental health services also were reviewed during Cornell Health’s reaccreditation in 2015.”

Neither the Chronicle report nor Lombardi’s statement directly mentioned Cornell President Martha E. Pollack’s decision on January 11 to reject a request to establish an independent task force to review the mental health challenges facing Cornell’s 22,000 students as well as the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them.

The request was made on March 27, 2017 by Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the parents of Sophie Hack MacLeod (’14), a Cornell fine arts student who died by suicide in Ithaca in 2016 while on a health leave of absence taken in her senior year. MacLeod and Hack said that in their experience they observed “systemic failure” in Cornell’s mental health policy and practice affecting areas such as suicide prevention, mental health counseling, and sexual violence.

In a statement on Friday, MacLeod and Hack said:

“We welcome the Cornell administration’s willingness to engage the community on student mental health issues, and Vice President Lombardi’s candid acknowledgement that Cornell students are struggling with disorders such as depression, anxiety, and suicidal thoughts, and that the university administration “can and will do more” to support student well-being.

“We continue to strongly believe that a fully independent task force is the best way to provide the Cornell administration with the best possible assessment of the enormous mental health challenges facing Cornell’s students and of the policies, programs, and practices to address them.

“We have great respect for the Jed Foundation and its important work on behalf of student mental health and campus suicide prevention. Jed Campus is an essential program supporting improved mental health on 156 college campuses nationwide. But JED Campus’s mandate is to operate in “partnership” with institutions, who pay a $22,000 fee for membership, rather than as a robust, fully independent review body. (The director of Cornell CAPS is a member of JED’s Board of Expert Advisors.)

“Despite Vice President Lombardi’s welcome engagement, we continue to have concerns about a closed, defensive mindset in the Cornell administration. It is hard to understand why it took the Cornell President 10 months to provide us with a decision on our request for an independent review, or why she would decline a meeting with the parents of a Cornell student who are making a good-faith effort to bring serious issues about student mental health to the administration’s attention.

“Finally, while we appreciate that the Cornell administration has identified three problem areas, our own observations indicate that this falls very far short of addressing myriad systemic failures. Vice President Lombardi’s referencing of the areas that “need further attention” is very vague. Among other things, it does not directly address the critical issue of Cornell’s heavy reliance on already over-burdened off-campus community mental health providers to support CAPS’s overflow of students in distress. The Cornell Chronicle report featuring Vice President Lombardi’s statement says that the administration has now allocated resources to increase the number of CAPS employees to 32 in 2018—in fact, that is merely an addition of one employee from the 2016 staff headcount, according to CAPS’s figures.

“In the interest of encouraging Cornell to further engage the community in its efforts, we ask the Cornell administration to transparently release the findings of last fall’s review of the operating standards and capacity of Cornell Health and the strategic directions of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, and to release review reports associated with its 2013 JedCampus Seal award and its current Jed Campus partnership.”

Cornell Says “No” to Independent Review of Mental Health Policies

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack this week rejected a request to establish an independent task force to review the mental health challenges facing Cornell students as well as the university’s policies, programs, and practices to address them.

pollack

Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack

The request was made 10 months ago by Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, the parents of Sophie Hack MacLeod (’14), a Cornell fine arts student in the School of Architecture, Art, and Planning who died by suicide in Ithaca at age 23 on March 26, 2016 while on a health leave of absence taken in her senior year.

The request was originally sent in a letter to Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III and then forwarded to Pollack after she took up her post as Cornell’s 14th president in April 2017. The letter was also cc’d to Cornell Board of Trustees Chairman Robert S. Harrison.

In the detailed 13-page letter dated March 27, 2017, MacLeod and Hack said that in their experience as the parents of a Cornell student who took her own life they observed “systemic failure” in Cornell’s mental health policy and practice affecting areas such as suicide prevention, mental health counseling, and sexual violence.

This, they wrote, included a failure 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.”

MacLeod and Hack said they observed “an institutional mindset reflecting complacency and defensiveness that appears to prioritize Cornell’s public image over the welfare of students struggling with mental disorders.”

Describing the mental health crisis confronting today’s college students, MacLeod and Hack cited several studies including the 2016 annual report of the Center for Collegiate Mental Health. The report said that collected data from 139 college counseling centers showed that 33.2 percent of 150,483 college students seeking counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had “seriously considered attempting suicide.” That was a marked increase from 23.8 percent in the 2010-11 academic year. The data also showed that 9.3 percent of the students seeking counseling had reported actually making a suicide attempt.

The letter went on:

“In a constructive spirit, we call on you 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.”

In her initial response on May 3, 2017, Pollack did not address the request for an independent review but thanked MacLeod and Hack for “voicing your broader concerns about Cornell’s policies and programs regarding student mental health.” She added, “We strive to always be open to how we can do better.”

In an email on January 11, Pollack turned down the request for a task force. She also declined a November 28 follow up request from MacLeod and Hack for a meeting to discuss the request for an independent review with the Cornell president in person.

Pollack’s email said in part:

“Please know that we share your commitment to ensuring that we provide the best support possible for our students. …

“We have been thoroughly reviewing our operating standards and capacity at Cornell Health this fall, including institutional and board-level conversations about the operational and strategic direction of the center. On a related note, we reviewed our most recent external assessment provided by the JED Foundation along with their subsequent visit to our campus this past summer. We will continue ongoing engagement with the foundation to ensure we are providing holistic support.

“While I acknowledge your request that we establish an additional independent review of the Cornell Health operation, it is not our intent to do so. We appreciate your support and look forward to our continued collaboration in the future.”

MacLeod and Hack established The Sophie Fund in their daughter’s memory in 2016 to advocate for mental health initiatives aiding young people in Ithaca and Tompkins County.

Commenting on Pollack’s decisions, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement:

“We have done our best to responsibly bring our concerns to the attention of the university’s senior leadership. President Pollack’s decisions don’t improve our confidence that Cornell has grasped the magnitude of its mental health challenges or fully stepped up to meet them. We hope the internal review she speaks of will be comprehensive and not limited to Cornell Health, and that its findings will be transparently released to the Cornell and Ithaca communities.”

According to Cornell’s website, it ranks 14th among the world’s universities in the 2018 QS World University Rankings, with an enrollment of about 22,000 students.