April 13, 2011

Action Toward a ‘Caring Community’

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I don’t know how to start this article, so I’ll just be direct: For the first time in my career here at Cornell, I am truly proud to be a Cornellian (This will probably be the last time I’ll admit that publicly). I don’t want to alienate the few of you who are still reading this, continuing past a first sentence that (wrongly) portends another gung-ho, unabashedly trite, pro-Cornell article. If anything, I hope I communicate my message well with a tinge of anger and frustration, but also — and more importantly —  hope and pride.

Why am I proud to be a Cornellian? I am proud because it is after nine p.m. on Friday, April 8 and I am in my room, writing an article born of the need to tell, inspired by what has been (so far) the apotheosis of my experience here at Cornell — Dining with Diverse Leaders, a dinner-discussion hosted by Cornell Minds Matter in the Willard Straight Hall Memorial Room. The dinner-discussion, which brought together student leaders in the Cornell community including Greek life, residential advisors, athletics and diverse student organizations in addition to administrators, faculty and staff, highlighted and began (or continued) an open dialogue about Cornell University’s Mental Health Framework.

The framework, introduced by Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73, is comprised of seven components: fostering a healthy educational environment, promoting social connectedness and resilience, increasing help-seeking behavior, identifying people in need of care, providing mental and medical health services, delivering coordinated crisis management and restricting access to means of suicide.  The discussion centered around the specifics of this framework and, more importantly, how the framework is being incorporated into campus life and what students, both as individuals and members of organizations, are doing and can be doing to help facilitate the framework’s incorporation and development.

One year ago, our community was dealing with the aftermath of an unfortunate, unnecessary trauma and the ensuing media attention harping on about the fantastically morbid gorges and suicide at Cornell.  As Gregory Eells, Cornel’s director of counseling and psychological services, remarked, the three public deaths in the spring were deeply felt by the community. Unremitting pessimism, symbolized in the distasteful and deleterious label of Cornell as “a suicide school,” wore on the psyche. It got old, fast. Obviously, there existed a disconnect between the Cornell that students were experiencing and the projected ideal of Cornell as a “caring community”.  With William Sinclair ’12, Bradley Ginsburg ’13 and Matthew Zika ’11 — rest in peace — gone, the fences came.

As much as members of the Cornell community hate and resent the fences, they are here to stay. Ironically, their very presence is the best thing about them. They exist, serving as a reminder of what happened — it is our responsibility not to forget what happened, but to remember what happened. With this comes the responsibility to change Cornell, and by change I mean improve upon Cornell, by fostering a reality in which Cornell as a “caring community” is not just an empty saying.

Some members of our community could (and would) argue that this disconnect between the Cornell that students experience and the projected ideal of Cornell as a “caring community” still exists. However, it is initiatives such as Dining with Diverse Leaders that work to bridge this gap and create a dialogue about mental health issues and suicide prevention within our community. Creating a space for this dialogue is of the utmost importance, a vital step without which we could not even begin to conceive of and develop a dialogue that is long overdue.

As President Skorton told us last year in a University statement on March 12, 2010, “Your wellbeing is the foundation on which your success is built. You are not alone. Your friends, your family, your teachers, your colleagues and an array of counselors and advisors are ready to listen and help you through whatever you are facing. If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength.”  But how can anyone feel comfortable asking for help if a community itself is not comfortable speaking openly about these issues? Dining with Diverse Leaders and similar initiatives are integral to this dialogue. Maybe, just maybe, Cornell is becoming — and I hate to end on such a seemingly banal note — “a caring community” after all.

Meredith Gudesblatt is a Junior in the College of Arts and Sciences and a member of Cornell Minds Matter. She can be reached at mjg278@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Meredith Gudesblatt