One of the most serious threats to students’ safety at Cornell is our mental health. The administration claims to care about our well-being, but lately I’ve been seeing evidence to the contrary.
A few weeks ago, I saw an article on Facebook that left me feeling frozen. The headline read, “Pollack Rejects Creation of Independent Task Force to Review Cornell’s Mental Health Policies.” I clicked the link, and you should too. I was introduced to Sophie Hack McLeod, a Cornell student who took her own life in 2016. Her parents, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, following this tragedy, requested an investigation into the university’s practices when it came to their student’s well-being. The article spoke of the ways in which Sophie’s parents witnessed “systemic failure” from Cornell in the face of Sophie’s suffering.
President Martha Pollack rejected Sophie’s grieving parents’ request. I am deeply ashamed by this, and I hope the rest of the Cornell community is, too.
I’ve been biting my tongue for a long time when it comes to Cornell’s mental health resources, because, in my mind, criticizing the institutions in place could dissuade someone from pursuing them. However, I believe we are at a point in which the system requires such deep reform that staying silent much longer would be a disservice. Though I believe CAPS is flawed, it is not useless, and students should never stop seeking help.
Eight days before I left for my freshman year at Cornell, my best friend died by suicide. This loss changed me in ways that I can’t explain — in ways that make my stomach sick as I type this. I arrived at Cornell with a heavy sadness and swollen eyes. The nets under the bridges were a constant conversation point. The idea of needing to prevent students from throwing themselves off the edge seemed funny to some people. I don’t want to ever remember the way that made me feel.
I was more grief than person my freshman year. And, so, because my parents insisted, I called Counseling and Psychological Services, and I had a phone consultation. Afterwards, I was given an appointment, but I have since learned that students are often deferred for over a month if they aren’t in crisis.
I shuffled my feet into Cornell Health — a building that is now shiny and new but still doesn’t take suicide seriously enough — and I sat down with a counselor who just kept repeating, “that must be hard for you.” He was right, it was hard for me.
At one point during that first semester, I asked the front desk if I could see someone different. They suggested that I work that out with my current provider, which was terrifying and felt confrontational. I declined and continued to feel unsupported and unwanted by the therapist CAPS had assigned me.
Quickly, the appointments went from every week to every two weeks. Eventually, I got the question, “So, should we keep seeing each other?” It felt like getting dumped. My grief hadn’t gone away, but even my counselor didn’t want to hear about it anymore. We decided we would check back in next semester, but I never heard from him again.
My experience wasn’t solely negative. I participated in a Cornell bereavement group through CAPS, which helped, but I only found it after significant digging. Most students don’t know such things exist.
I’ve heard stories similar to mine. Phone consultations that never turned into appointments. Cancelled appointments that never got rescheduled. The feeling that CAPS is just trying to clear you of “risk” so that someone else can take your place, and they can have plausible deniability if something really bad happens to you. When our mental health is treated like a back-room deal, it’s hard not to feel ashamed for needing help in the first place.
One could claim that I didn’t try hard enough — that I should have forcefully advocated for myself and my mental health until it was under control. But I want to know why it has to be so hard. Why does it have to take so much effort and discomfort? Maybe an external review would want to ask those questions, too. So, President Pollack, why don’t you want the answers?
Cornell Health is ill-equipped to handle student’s mental health concerns. If someone seeking help has to wait over a month for an appointment, we have a serious understaffing problem. This institution has not done enough for me or my peers when it comes to our mental health, but this doesn’t have to be the end of the story.
The Cornell administration should agree to an external review of our mental health policies, and, above all else, they should improve. Nets under the bridges aren’t enough. Telling us that you care isn’t enough. We need publicized resources and a better trained staff with more members. We need you to help us.
Sarah Lieberman is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Blueberries for Sal appears alternate Thursdays this semester.