February 29, 2016

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Lessons From the Ivy Mental Health Conference

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A few weeks ago, I along with nine other Cornellians had the opportunity to travel to the University of Pennsylvania for the first annual Unmasking the Ivy League: A Conference on Mental Health. Through the event we had the chance to learn and collaborate with our Ivy peers and see how we can improve the way that we look at mental health on our own campus.

One of the biggest takeaways from the conference for me was understanding the scale of this issue on college campuses.  With the success of Mental Health Awareness week last semester and a number of events that groups like Minds Matter host regularly to create a campus dialogue on the issue amongst diverse communities, we are moving towards a healthier campus. That being said, our current system of mental health care is not without its flaws.

An issue that the Cornell delegation brought to the table was the conversation on leaves of absence. Our current leave of absence policy requires that students who, under the advice of a medical professional, feel that they need to take a leave from campus to support their mental health are given the option to take a leave of absence for a year. Students who elect to take the Health Leave of Absence are not considered Cornell students while on their leave because they are not enrolled in classes. Because of this designation, they are required to leave campus and receive care outside and must prove that they are healthy enough to come back.

While this policy has been very successful for a number of students, there have been issues for some students who are required to take a leave of absence, but may find that their home environment is not conducive to their recovery. There are also a number of students that come from other countries from whom a policy like this could create significant complications.

The obvious solution that comes to mind is finding a way for students who are taking a leave of absence to stay in Ithaca, live off campus and get care here. For many students, an option like this is significantly more amenable because it gives them the ability to stay near friends and their campus involvements, while also taking an academic break and receiving care.

Finding a way to make this a policy that can work for all students requires us to consider that students on this policy do not receive financial support from the University because they are no longer considered students. To live off campus and support oneself is a rather lofty financial burden and any kind of aid program would have to have significant capital backing it.

When this conversation came up during the conference, our Ivy peers seemed to have similar issues with this policy. Some had a little more flexibility with their policies, while others were less developed than ours. There were no obvious solutions to solve the major concerns with the issue, but there is a new momentum amongst all the Ivies after the conference, particularly considering mental health leaves of absence.

Considering the layers of complications with the policy, this is an issue that requires a creative solution from the community, and is something Cornell policy-makers and students should remain cognizant of.

Yamini Bhandari is the undergraduate student-elected trustee. She can be reached a  yb94@cornell.edu. Trustee Viewpoint appears on alternate Tuesdays this semester.

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