The Sophie Fund’s co-founders, saying that they are encouraged by Cornell University’s launch of a comprehensive review of student mental health policies and practices, called on the review teams to set the ambitious goal of creating a gold standard for collegiate mental health.
100-year-old statue of Cornell founder Ezra Cornell in the Arts Quad
Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, who created The Sophie Fund in 2016 as a mental health advocacy group after the suicide death of their daughter Sophie during a health leave of absence from Cornell, made the statement in a 25-page presentation on August 23 to the two review teams containing their personal perspectives and main concerns. The review is taking place during the 2019-2020 academic year.
“At times, we have expressed frustration over delays in launching Cornell’s comprehensive review,” they wrote. “But it is important now to look forward and help ensure that it brings about the greatest possible support for student mental health.” The Sophie Fund founders said they “are encouraged by Cornell Health Executive Director Kent Bullis’s commitment to creating a ‘healthier and more supportive campus environment with improved support resources and clinical services for our students.’” MacLeod and Hack wrote to President Martha E. Pollack in April 2017 asking for an independent, external-led task force of experts to assess the university’s approach to student mental health and make recommendations for improvements.
Click here to download The Sophie Fund’s “Perspectives on Student Mental Health at Cornell University: A Presentation to the Mental Health Review Committee and the External Review Team.”
Scope of the Comprehensive Review of Student Mental Health
We encourage the review teams to set the ambitious goal of producing a model package of findings and recommendations enabling Cornell to establish a gold standard for collegiate mental health.
Cornell University’s Institutional Mindset
We encourage the review teams to review prevailing attitudes toward student mental health in the university’s leadership echelons; and consider recommendations for changes in institutional mindset and leadership culture as a necessary prerequisite for effectively addressing student mental health challenges.
Campus Climate and Institutional Accountability
We encourage the review teams to review the broad cross-campus framework for supporting student mental health and wellness, and consider recommendations for strengthening accountability; streamlining policies, programs, and practices; and enlisting schools, faculty, staff, and students in a comprehensive, coordinated, results-oriented effort that prioritizes student mental health, healthy living, and unqualified support for every student’s academic success.
Cornell University Student Mental Health Policies
We encourage the review teams to inform their findings and recommendations with a review of all current Cornell policies related to or affecting student mental health.
Cornell University Budgetary Resources
We encourage the review teams to review how university resources are allocated for student mental health; to explore potential new sources of funding; and consider budgetary recommendations based on what is needed to fully implement best practices.
Student Mental Health Data
We encourage the review teams to inform their findings and recommendations with a review of key data providing insights into the prevalence of mental health challenges and the means utilized to address them.
Cornell University Student Input
We encourage the review teams to actively seek and receive maximum input from students in order to fully understand the mental health challenges students face, which include seeking and receiving psychological counseling, navigating academic pressures that exacerbate mental disorders, and taking leaves of absence due to mental health crises; and consider recommendations strongly informed by student input.
Clinical Best Practices
We encourage the review teams to review the mental health policies, programs, and practices at Cornell Health and the Counseling and Psychological Services unit, and consider recommendations that ensure alignment with current best practices.
Mental Health Leaves of Absence
We encourage the review teams to review the university’s policies, programs, and practices for mental health leaves of absence; and consider recommendations for better supporting students in the process as they consider, take, and return from leaves.
Ithaca Community Resources
We encourage the review teams to undertake a review, including substantive discussions with Ithaca community stakeholders, of the practice of referring students to community service providers; and consider recommendations that better safeguard the mental health interests of students as well as community members.
Trauma at Cornell University
We encourage the review teams to review the prevalence of student sexual assault and hazing, the mental health consequences for victims, and the practices in place to address the problems and support the victims; and consider recommendations seeking an end to the cycle of student-inflicted trauma and ensuring maximum support for victims.
Alcohol and Other Drugs
We encourage the review teams to review the university’s Alcohol and Other Drug policies, programs, and practices; and consider recommendations for enhancing prevention and intervention strategies, treatment, and recovery support.
Prevention and Early Intervention, and Crisis Intervention
We encourage the review teams to review the university’s policies, programs, and practices for creating a safe community; preventing student suicides; supporting at-risk populations; and aiding students in crisis; and consider recommendations for improvements.
Mental Health Education
We encourage the review teams to review policies, programs, and practices for communicating knowledge and tools on mental health and fighting stigma; and consider recommendations for improvement.
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Are you a Cornell student or a member of the Ithaca community? You may provide your comments and ideas to the review teams by emailing the Mental Health Review Committee (MHRC) at this address: email@example.com.
The heads of the Mental Health Review teams are:
External Review Team:
Michael Hogan, consultant at Hogan Health Associates
Mental Health Review Committee:
Marla Love, senior associate dean of students in the Office of the Dean of Students, Student and Campus Life
Miranda Swanson, associate dean for Student Services in Cornell Engineering
Cornell will soon be publishing an online survey about student mental health available here.
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.
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)
The Sophie Fund recently organized a small conference with a big purpose: to introduce and implement the Zero Suicide Model in Tompkins County. Together with Ithaca’s Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service and the New York State Suicide Prevention Office, we invited the most senior healthcare leaders from local government, medical centers, and college campuses to attend an expert briefing on October 16 at The Statler Hotel.
Healthcare leaders from Ithaca and Tompkins County
The presenters were two of the nation’s leading authorities on suicide prevention:
—Michael Hogan, a developer of the Zero Suicide Model, who served as New York State Mental Health Commissioner (2007–2012), Ohio Department of Mental Health Director (1991–2007) and Connecticut Mental Health Commissioner (1987–1991).
—Sigrid Pechenik, Associate Director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Office.
Turnout for the briefing was excellent. Attendees included: Tompkins County Public Health Director Frank Kruppa, who also serves as the county’s Mental Health Commissioner; Deputy Mental Health Commissioner Sharon MacDougall; senior administrators from Cayuga Medical Center and Family & Children’s Service of Ithaca; and health directors from Cornell University, Ithaca College, and Tompkins Cortland Community College.
Suicide is absolutely not an inevitable outcome for people struggling with suicide ideation related to mental illness or other factors. The Suicide Prevention Resource Center argues that “we all have a role to play” in preventing suicide.
The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention explains that “suicide most often occurs when stressors exceed current coping abilities of someone suffering from a mental health condition”—and part of the problem is that conditions like depression often go undiagnosed or untreated.
AFSP outlines the risk factors and warning signs for suicide, and the critical steps that suicidal individuals and their families and friends can take when such factors and signs are present. Risk factors include mental health conditions, stressful life events, and a family history of suicide. Warning signs include talking about pain and suicide, increased alcohol or drug use, withdrawing from family and friends, and exhibiting anxiety or loss of interest.
The Zero Suicide Model, sometimes called the “Suicide Safer Care Model,” goes further. Zero Suicide argues that suicides can be prevented by closing cracks in healthcare systems—that “suicide deaths for individuals under care within health and behavioral health systems are preventable.”
As Hogan and Pechenik emphasized in their Statler presentations, Zero Suicide means making suicide prevention a core responsibility of healthcare. Specifically, this entails a systematic clinical approach in healthcare systems—training staff, screening for suicide ideation, utilizing evidence-based interventions, mandating continuous quality improvement, treating suicidality as a presenting problem—and not simply relying on the heroic efforts of crisis staff and individual clinicians.
Sigrid Pechenik, Associate Director, New York State Suicide Prevention Office, and Michael Hogan, former New York State Mental Health Commissioner
As SPRC puts it: “The programmatic approach of Zero Suicide is based on the realization that suicidal individuals often fall through multiple cracks in a fragmented and sometimes distracted healthcare system, and on the premise that a systematic approach to quality improvement is necessary.”
Certainly, the facts make a compelling case that healthcare settings must play a critical role in preventing suicide. According to Pechenik, a review of New York State data of 3,564 suicides in 2013–2014 identified that 25 percent of the individuals who took their own lives had been discharged from emergency departments or inpatient facilities within just seven days prior to their suicide deaths.
The data also indicates a strong need to better train clinicians in suicide screening, assessment, intervention, and follow-up. Of 1,585 mental health providers surveyed by the NYS Office of Mental Health in 2014, 64 percent reported little or no specialized training in suicide-specific interventions. Moreover, about 33 percent reported that they did not feel they had sufficient training to assist suicidal patients.
As Pechenik noted, Zero Suicide is also explicitly embraced by the NYS Suicide Prevention Plan 2016–17, entitled 1,700 Too Many. Implementing Zero Suicide in health and behavioral healthcare settings is the first pillar of the suicide prevention strategy outlined in the plan. The second pillar is to “create and strengthen suicide safer communities.”
Hogan pointed out that the Zero Suicide Model builds on breakthroughs such as the Perfect Depression Care Initiative implemented in 2001 by the Henry Ford Health System in Michigan. Its comprehensive approach to mental and behavioral healthcare—incorporating suicide prevention as an explicit goal—demonstrated a 75 percent reduction in the suicide rate among Henry Ford health plan members.
More recently, Hogan highlighted, The Joint Commission issued a Sentinel Event Alert on the imperative of improving suicide prevention in healthcare settings. The Alert is important because the commission is a body that accredits and certifies nearly 21,000 healthcare organizations and programs (including Cayuga Medical Center) across the country—such accreditation and certification is a symbol of quality that reflects an organization’s commitment to meeting certain performance standards.
“The Joint Commission urges 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.”
The Sentinel Event Alert recommended detailed actions for suicide ideation detection; the screening, risk assessment, safety, treatment, discharge, and follow-up care of at-risk individuals; educating all staff about suicide risk; keeping health care environments safe for individuals at risk for suicide; and documenting their care.
The commission’s focus on suicide prevention in healthcare settings stems from the belief that while being alert to risk factors and warning signs is important, it is not sufficient. There is no typical suicide victim: most people with risk factors don’t attempt suicide, and others without risk factors do. Thus, the Alert stated:
“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.”
The Alert reported that many communities and healthcare organizations presently do not have adequate suicide prevention resources, leading to the low detection and treatment rate of those at risk. It noted that although most people who die by suicide receive healthcare services in the year prior to their deaths, healthcare providers often do not detect their suicidal thoughts. “Supportive continuity of care for those identified as at risk for suicide is crucial,” the Alert said.
The Joint Commission reported that in 2014 many commission-accredited organizations were actually rated non-compliant with its National Patient Safety Goal 15.01.01 Element of Performance 1: “Conduct a risk assessment that identifies specific patient characteristics and environmental features that may increase or decrease the risk for suicide.”
The commission said its database recorded 1,089 suicides occurring from 2010 to 2014 among patients receiving care, treatment, and services in a staffed, around-the clock care setting or within 72 hours of discharge, including from a hospital’s emergency department. According to the Alert, “The most common root cause documented during this time period was shortcomings in assessment, most commonly psychiatric assessment.”
The Joint Commission said its Sentinel Event Alert aimed “to assist all healthcare organizations providing both inpatient and outpatient care to better identify and treat individuals with suicide ideation.” The Alert listed areas for improvement:
—Clinicians in emergency, primary, and behavioral healthcare settings particularly have a crucial role in detecting suicide ideation and assuring appropriate evaluation.
—Behavioral health professionals play an additional important role in providing evidence-based treatment and follow-up care.
—For all clinicians working with patients with suicide ideation, care transitions are very important. Many patients at risk for suicide do not receive outpatient behavioral treatment in a timely fashion following discharge from emergency departments and inpatient psychiatric settings.
The Sentinel Event Alert noted that suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States, taking “more lives than traffic accidents and more than twice as many as homicides.” In 2011, according to data published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control, suicide became the second leading cause of death for Americans aged 15-24.
In April 2016, the National Center for Health Statistics reported a 24 percent increase in the suicide rate in the United States from 1999 to 2014. While age-adjusted death rates for heart disease and cancer have dramatically declined in the last two decades thanks to improved detection and treatment strategies, the suicide rate has skyrocketed.
On September 15, 2017, the U.S. National Institute of Mental Health reported that three interventions, which were designed for follow-up of patients identified with suicide risk in hospital emergency departments, save lives and are even more cost effective than usual care. The interventions were sending postcards to patients at risk; calling discharged patients to offer support and encourage follow-up treatment; and connecting patients to suicide-focused cognitive behavioral therapy programs.
“In the face of a gradually rising suicide rate, the need for effective prevention strategies is urgent,” said NIMH Director Joshua Gordon. “These findings of cost-effectiveness add to the impetus for implementing these life-saving approaches. Importantly, they also make a strong case for expanding screening, which would allow us to reaching many more of those at risk with life-saving interventions.”
It is the hope of The Sophie Fund that the October 16 briefing at The Statler Hotel is the start of a process of garnering commitments from local healthcare leaders to develop implementation plans that bring the Zero Suicide Model to Tompkins County.
To achieve ultimate success, “buy-ins” will be needed from major healthcare systems including psychiatric units, emergency departments, and college health centers, as well as from primary care providers and substance use disorder treatment centers.
To assist healthcare organizations in implementing the seven fundamentals of Zero Suicide, SPRC established the Zero Suicide project offering online resources such as an organizational self-study, implementation toolkits, readings, and webinars, and an offline Zero Suicide Academy providing two-day trainings for healthcare leadership.
The NYS Office of Mental Health operates the New York Academy for Suicide Safer Care, which offers a 9-12 month program of webinars and coaching calls for organizations seeking to raise their standard of suicide care.
The Statler briefing follows several encouraging local developments in suicide prevention during 2017.
On April 17, community mental health stakeholders representing 18 organizations adopted The Watershed Declaration, calling suicide a “serious public health concern” and pledging to intensify suicide prevention efforts in Ithaca and Tompkins County.
On June 7, 2017, Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick issued a proclamation supporting The Watershed Declaration and calling for “an all-out effort to prevent suicide.” The Tompkins County Legislature issued a similar proclamation on September 5, 2017.
On July 31, led by the Tompkins County Department of Mental Health, local mental health leaders launched the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention Coalition representing 32 organizations including health, behavioral health and substance use disorder treatment facilities, schools, and county departments.
—By Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack
Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack are officers of The Sophie Fund, Inc., a nonprofit charitable corporation supporting mental health initiatives aiding young people in greater Ithaca and Tompkins County.