October 23, 2016

GUEST ROOM | Enough with Awareness Week, We Need Policy Change

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People are afraid of us. The reigning belief of the mentally ill is that we are unhinged, unpredictable, unable to be. At Cornell, and most colleges, this belief is a bit less so. You can’t fear what you know, so our Mental Health Awareness Week is set to do just that, make people conscious that hey, the mentally ill exist, your mental health is a real thing, and that caring for yourself and others is good. But it is not enough. Workshops on self-compassion aren’t enough, photo campaigns aren’t enough, people are already aware that mental illness exists here, in 2016. Now, it’s become a passive and shallow thing to remember those that have committed suicide, we did all we could, say the professors, a rare case, write the papers, what a tragedy, we all agree for just one day. Awareness is a thing of an already graduated class.

The general public opinion doesn’t matter in the Cornell context; most students are aware that mental health is a term and a term not to take lightly. We have the general groundwork for policy change, because these awareness techniques years ago did their job years ago. Now we’re beating on a dead horse, continuing these small and easy techniques because they did in fact work and because there’s no harm in being safe. Why fix what isn’t broken.

Our policies are not catching up to the popular university opinion that the mentally ill are not dangerous, and that stigma is a structural barrier to attaining mental health care. And this isn’t just Cornell, it’s every university. Higher-level institutions know, but what do they do? What has Cornell financially done since 2011 for mental health care, what has changed besides a cute hashtag for this year’s Mental Health Awareness Week?

Gannett’s been in construction since last year, to be completed this spring as a reborn “Cornell Health.” Dr. Bullis, the executive director of Gannett encouraged all visitors “to share their feedback with us and how we can improve our services” during construction time. So let’s share our list of grievances, since we’re apparently approved to do so now.

So, policy change for effective treatment is needed. Gannett needs better services, administrative staff that are trained better; Do you want to kill yourself? No? Then why are you calling? doesn’t cut it. We need to invest in more psychiatrists and therapists. In the current system of untrained receptionists, lack of communication between administration and the team of therapists/psychiatrists, it can take three weeks to even see someone when you’re feeling depressed, anxious, when your mental illness peaks during its hourly rise and fall of severity. I called once, last fall, suicidal, in need to talk to my therapist when the bored woman at the end of the line said she could only give me a slot two weeks from now. I didn’t even hear a sorry. I emailed my therapist a few minutes after the call and she was able to see me an hour later. This is not acceptable and this is unforgivable for an Ivy League university that spent $350,000 on bridge barriers to stop students from jumping to their deaths. Students should not be put in an endless line to get mental health care. We’re not in a time of depression, in an orderly queue for bread, this is the same as physical health care, this needs the same type of urgency and personal aid.

Structuralizing the mental health care programs should be one of the first steps. All the resources available are on different pages, on different main sites, there’s no true master list of services/locations/times. Some students don’t even know EARS is an option available right in Willard Straight Hall until their senior year. It’s all a waste without proper organization and marketing. One page should be created, with numbers and events listed properly, it should be a hub. We shouldn’t make people who need help work for it.

How about being realistic in the way students receive mental health care? Do you think a student in a crisis or a student unsure whether or not their feelings are severe enough to warrant treatment can wait ten minutes to get an answer on the Gannett line? To go through all those options and holds and transfers just to get someone on the other end that will indifferently reply we’ll see you in two weeks. How about a texting service? Calling real people adds anxiety, it adds unnecessary time, it’s not 2002 anymore. How about an app that connects to your student account, knowing your class times to schedule a session, letting you talk to a professional through a screen that allows you to be more raw and open? And with a bigger team of professionals it shouldn’t be a problem to get someone’s help on your time and on time. Shouldn’t the Student Assembly’s Web Development team’s resources go into a project like this? It all seems radical now because no one’s tried before, because the Cornell mood on mental health is that raising awareness is enough.

We need to lessen the fear and up the familiarity, but this is not a priority. And this isn’t done by hour-long workshops once a year on drawing your dreams with crayons and spa nights at Noyes. We don’t need to be patronized like elementary school students. We need a constant conversation and that means realizing mental illness is common and an issue. Photo campaigns do this to an extent, but in general they’ve become impersonal and now associated with one-time events, for things that happen yearly, something you attend then forget about. Plus, the stigma still exists, some people are not in that stage of treatment or recovery where they can show their face and tell their story. If that’s the only outlet how can we expect to hear the whole story quilt. How about a column for health, for daily blog posts on students’ well-being, on their mental health and maybe progress. A safe space of sports, a public journal that can be text or drawings, quotes clipped from their favorite books. It can be anonymous, but it’s something that lets the student body know people dealing with their mental health are nearby, they still exist, they’re not viral campaigns of the past. Yes, recovery is possible, not all cases are biological, triggers exist, you can get better and treatment can work. Students need to know there is not one story, there is a gradient of experiences and you can fit anywhere.

Even if we lose in advocating for better and more proactive mental health policy, we’re promoting better mental health culture. We win by trying because this kind of awareness is new. We start understanding that structurally, things can improve. We can’t allow the apathy to continue.

Allison Arteaga is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. Comments may be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.