Launching Cornell’s Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health

In the six years that I’ve been at Cornell University, we have seen an unprecedented growth in the need for campus mental health services. While the Cornell administration has been extremely generous in increasing our clinical resources in recent years, it remains a challenge to keep pace with the growing need for care. And we’re not alone: universities across the country are struggling with similar challenges.

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Michael Hogan, leader of External Review Team

Beginning in 2018, I was part of many campus conversations—with students, colleagues, and campus leaders, including President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi—about the need to find new ways to engage our community in addressing the environmental factors contributing to student distress, and to seek new perspectives on the services and resources available to students on campus.

In September 2018, these conversations and others led President Pollack to commit the university to a Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health, to begin in 2019.

The Campus Health Executive Committee (CHEC) oversaw the development of the review’s scope and planning during the Fall 2018 semester. Feedback was solicited from a wide range of student, staff, and faculty stakeholders, including members of the university-wide Coalition on Mental Health. The consensus was that the comprehensive review should focus on two themes: how to meet the growing clinical needs of students facing mental health problems, and how to improve the campus environment and culture to better support student mental health.

In Spring 2019, CHEC announced the members of the two groups charged with conducting the review: an internal university Mental Health Review Committee tasked with examining Cornell’s academic and social environment, climate, and culture related to mental health, and an External Review Team responsible for reviewing the university’s clinical services and campus-based strategies.

The internal committee, made up of 13 students, faculty, and staff, is led by Marla Love, senior associate dean of students in the Office of the Dean of Students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for Student Services in the College of Engineering.  Love and Swanson are seasoned student affairs professionals who are relatively new to Cornell, bringing a fresh perspective to the review process. Love joined Cornell in October 2017 after serving for 15 years at various institutions across the country including Scripps College and Phillips (Andover) Academy, and most recently at Azusa Pacific University. Swanson came to Cornell in December 2017 from the University of Chicago, where she spent 16 years as dean of students in the Physical Sciences Division and working with graduate students in the Humanities Division.

Members of the internal team include Catherine Thrasher-Carroll, mental health promotion program director for Cornell Health’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives; among the four students in the group is Chelsea Kiely ‘20, of the College of Arts and Sciences, who is president of Cornell Minds Matter, a student mental health promotion organization.

The External Review Team, comprised of three highly respected leaders in the field of mental health, is led by Michael Hogan, who served as mental health commissioner in New York, Connecticut, and Ohio over a span of 25 years. He is a member of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention’s executive committee, and was a developer of the Zero Suicide Model for healthcare. Hogan chaired President George W. Bush’s New Freedom Commission on Mental Health and has served on the board of the Joint Commission, an independent organization that accredits healthcare organizations and programs in the United States.

The other members of the external team are Karen Singleton, associate medical director and chief of Mental Health and Counseling Services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s MIT Medical; and Henry Chung, senior medical director of Behavioral Health Integration Strategy at the Care Management Organization of Montefiore Health System, and professor of psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.

Listening tours and focus groups will be held through the Fall 2019 semester, and the final report of findings and recommendations will be submitted in Spring 2020. Updates about the reviewers’ process and progress—in addition to the final report—will be posted on the Mental Health Review website.

I have also asked the members of both review teams to provide ongoing feedback to Cornell’s leadership as the review proceeds, including recommendations specific to our work at Cornell Health.

It is important for the Cornell community to note that we will not be waiting for the completion of the review to begin implementing important changes to our clinical services. A new counseling appointment model—which will include brief same-day appointments, and more options for follow-up care—will begin in Fall 2019. We look forward to the opportunity to gain valuable feedback and to identify opportunities for improvement.

I am grateful to President Pollack and Vice President Lombardi for prioritizing this university-wide review in support of student campus health. And I am confident that the review will result in a healthier and more supportive campus environment with improved support resources and clinical services for our students.

—By Kent Bullis

Kent Bullis, MD, is the executive director of Cornell Health

Photo credit: Suicide Prevention Resource Center (video screenshot)