Cornell Task Force Demands “Gold Standard” for Student Mental Health

The student-run Cornell Mental Health Task Force has issued a set of recommendations for immediate steps to improve the campus climate and services for mental health, and called on the university administration to ensure that an upcoming comprehensive review of student mental health is “independent, thorough, and transparent,” and involves “full student participation.”

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Statue of Ezra Cornell in the Arts Quad

The recommendations addressed to the Cornell administration proposed three immediate initiatives to be carried out in two phases, covering improvements in student mental health services, mental health education and collaboration within the Cornell community, and academic policies and practices that impact student mental health.

The task force also called for the creation of “an official Standing Committee on Mental Health,” comprised of task force members and other students, “tasked with overseeing ongoing implementation of best practices for student mental health, reviews, and serving as a liaison between students and their needs and the administration.”

The task force, co-chaired by Matthew Jirsa ’19 and Joanna Hua ’20 and consisting of more than 20 students, issued the recommendations earlier this week after a six-month study and following an October 19 public forum where draft recommendations were presented and discussed.

Specific recommendations of the task force included:

Hiring more psychological counselors to accommodate rising numbers of students seeking services; reducing wait times for counseling appointments; requiring counselors to undergo diversity training; improving access to off-campus psychological services; requiring mandatory suicide prevention training for Resident Advisors; requiring mandatory mental health training and an accountability system for faculty; introducing a standardized grading system to reduce academic stress; creating a student mental health advocate; providing support to students at every stage of the process for taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons.

In its letter, the task force said it sought to collaborate with the administration “to mutually work towards profound change, with the ultimate end of making Cornell a standout institution where mental health is holistically and completely championed, academically, clinically, and culturally.”

The task force applauded recent announcements by President Martha E. Pollack and Vice President Ryan Lombardi that the administration intends to launch a “comprehensive” review of student mental health. The task force added: “We call on the administration to ensure that this review is independent, thorough, and transparent, includes full student participation, and strives to become a ‘gold standard’ for addressing mental health on the college level to which other universities can look for guidance.”

The task force commended many aspects of Cornell’s current mental health efforts, noting the hiring of additional Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) counselors, the recent formation of a broad-based campus Coalition on Mental Health, and ongoing support for peer-to-peer programs aimed at reducing stress. “These measures are a fantastic start, but with high wait times [for CAPS appointments] and recent incidents of suicide attempts, we are far from where we need to be,” the task force said.

The task force said that Cornell’s “Ivy-League culture of hyper-competition and ‘stress Olympics’ is centered in the middle of a rural health system—a situation that creates a high demand for mental health services despite rural issues of lower mental health professional supply.” It cited Cornell Pulse data indicating that four of 10 undergraduates surveyed were “unable to function academically for at least a week in the past year due to depression, stress, or anxiety” and that 12 percent of surveyed Cornell students had seriously considered suicide within the past year.

A summary of the Cornell Mental Health Task Force key recommendations:

Mental Health Services

—Develop a system of intaking students that is more efficient, shortening wait times and improving access while also ensuring quality of care.

—Pledge to hire new counselors in the event that the number of students seeking CAPS services continues to rise in the coming semesters/years.

—Seek input from the student body concerning whether or not the current counselors are diverse and adequately understand a broad range of mental health concerns.

—Require all counselors to obtain a baseline of diversity training in order to accommodate for the diversity and intersectionality of mental health concerns.

—Share estimated wait times for appointments with counselors on the Cornell Health website for transparency.

—Create a mechanism for anonymous referrals of persons in distress to mental health resources before extreme actions such as calling the police.

—Establish a clear and straightforward method for switching counselors within Cornell Health if requested.

—Create of a page on the Cornell Health website that addresses considerations that are made when matching patients with counselors, clearly outlines the process for switching to a new counselor, and lists resources for students who are unhappy with their care (i.e. patient advocates).

—Allow students to state their counselor preferences (demographic, personality type, etc.) during the 15-minute phone screening and accommodate their requests.

—Create an anonymous outlet for students to voice complaints about their counselor to be utilized in counselor training.

—Enable students to change counselors by speaking with a receptionist or patient advocate, or by sending an email to their counselor.

—Create an Off-Campus Therapy Referral Network to sustain relationships with therapists in the Ithaca community.

—Provide an easily accessible list of off-campus therapists accepting Cornell students and accepting the Student Health Plan including those willing to offer prorated/discounted prices.

 

Mental Health Education and Collaboration

—Create a mental health program for Residential Advisors covering mental illnesses and substance abuse and including mandatory QPR suicide prevention training.

—Provide basic mental health information and learning to incoming freshmen while underscoring support from various communities at Cornell.

—Create a Standing Committee on Mental Health that helps implement initiatives and objectives, and serves as a liaison between students and administrators about mental health services and concerns.

—Establish mental health training for all faculty and staff members, and advisors/administrators, including concise mandatory manuals and training programs.

—Establish a system of accountability for professors to be more cognizant and understanding of mental health issues among students.

 

Academic Policies and Mental Health

—Appointment of a Mental Health Advocate who can represent students in academic settings where mental health is a factor in academic success or stress.

—Present students with their rights and when necessary have the Mental Health Advocate serve as a facilitator between students and professors.

—Ensure that professors understand mental health complexities and accommodate students as needed.

—Implement a standardized and transparent grading scheme as a method of course stress reduction.

—Provide housing aid to students taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons who don’t have supportive households to return to.

—Provide a system of support and contact for students at every stage of the leave of absence process.

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.