February 25, 2018

WANG | Hear for You

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I always thought the greatest superpower anyone could wish for was the ability to speak the right words at the right time. Its potential would be substantial. Businessmen could use it to swing negotiations; socialites could use it attract the attention of others; politicians could use it to push their agenda across.

And I? Well, I could use it to get me and my friends to calm down a bit. At Cornell, first- and secondhand stress is always lurking. And speaking the wrong word when someone is desperately seeking comfort is as damaging of a mistake as you can make. Words matter, even if we toss them around too loosely at times.

It’s partially why I decided to join Cornell Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service’s counseling program this semesters as a trainee. The EARS program is a student-run counseling program on campus that seeks to provide anonymous free counseling services. It runs seven days a week, with counseling sessions held in the afternoon to the late night at its office in 213 Willard Straight Hall by student counselors.

As a trainee, I learn the ins and outs of what makes an effective EARS counselor, and the steps I have to take to become one. Admittedly, I’ve only been there for a few sessions, but there’s a common undercurrent running under each session. We’re often asked to split into small groups, where we split even further into trios. One becomes a counselor, the other the issue-giver, and the third the observer. Some nights, I might be the counselor, listening in as a trainee vents; the other, I might be the one taking notes on the counselor and issue-giver, making marks for improvement for both. It’s an odd thing to watch people spill their hearts out, but it’s familiar. Whether you’re an EARS counselor or not, we’ve all been pseudo-counselors at some point.

And as we come to practice it, listening is anything but a passive act. We’re taught to make eye contact, because it establishes a basic level of empathy. We come to understand that leaning in while listening shows engagement; leaning back shows apathy. We’re given a list of words that look suspiciously like SAT words, designed to capture a feeling that someone may be struggling to put together. Slowly, over the course of a two semester training program, students become adept at listening, giving feedback, showing empathy and applying the EARS counseling model to various situations.

There was also another reason I joined. In light of recent events, it’s perhaps now more important than ever for the EARS program to expand its current reach. As Cornell University has twisted and turned under a furious gale of criticism for its less than stellar mental health services (with criticism ranging from month long wait times for Counseling and Psychiatric Services, to brutal takedown columns criticizing the larger indifference from the administration regarding the issue), the viability of a current system has been called into question.

It’s not that I think Cornell’s quality of service is poor. Even detractors who complain about the inefficiencies of the system admit that the services are staffed by quality professionals who do a well-rounded, excellent job when given the chance. But because of chronic understaffing in the services — at a student assembly meeting last month, CAPS director Gregory Ells made a good point that recruiting and retaining an appropriately sized staff was difficult in a largely rural area — wait times can be frustratingly long and I’ve heard professionals are often overworked.

It’s why I think passively leaving the care of the mental health of students to the administration isn’t such a good idea. Whether out of misplaced well intentioned actions or large indifference, the administration hasn’t delivered the services fit for a population as large and diverse as Cornell’s. Luckily, even as much of the resentment lingers from President Marth Pollack’s denial of the Sophie’s Fund pleas to create an independent task health force to review the mental health policies at Cornell, other student groups are mobilizing to fill in the empty patches left by CAPS.

There’s Cornell Minds Matter, which seeks to host events designed to reduce stress amongst students, while reducing the stigma of mental health on campus. (For example, for our first member meeting, each of us were given a bright green wristband labeled “Stamp out Stigma!”) It’s a large organization, but one still growing.This semester, the club has sought to expand even more to raise awareness of mental health on campus.

There’s also the Cornell mental health task force, which is a brand new student group designed to independently (and empirically) review Cornell’s mental health program and policies through evidence collection, and then make recommendations to the administration based on its findings. It’s an incredibly intriguing idea, with ambitious plans and promising potential, even if it’s too soon to tell if it’ll work out.

A big part of this will also have to come from EARS. The program is moderately sized now; there are perhaps 50 counselors currently, but as the University attempts to find a feasible but satisfactory solution to its mental health problems, more students will come to rely on EARS as they become frustrated with wait times. EARS should not be a direct substitute to CAPS — the professionals have received more training, and can handle more severe cases beyond the scope of EARS. Rather, it should be a complement.

In the future, it’s almost certain we’ll see more changes regarding the state of mental health services at Cornell. But waiting for the administration to right the ship while other students plod along isn’t something the campus can afford any longer.

I encourage students who are interested in making a positive impact on this issues to join clubs with the mission of combating mental health and anxiety issues. Even if these student programs don’t quite have the capabilities and qualifications of the CAPS program, a student community that is more proactive on this front — through petitioning and advising the student administration to student counseling groups — is one that can help makes the voices of students heard. Together, both administration and students can deliver the kind of support for mental health that has been lacking for these past few years. At the very least, it’s an idea worth hearing out.
William Wang is a sophomore in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He can be reached at wwang@cornellsun.com. Willpower appears alternate Mondays this semester.