April 19, 2004

Serious Mental Health Issues Plague Students

Print More

Cornell has seen a sharp increase in the number of students suffering from serious mental health problems, including depression, anxiety, eating disorders and suicidal behavior in recent years. Utilization of Gannett’s Counseling and Psychological Services has increased 63 percent over the last seven years, and data from the National College Health Assessment Survey conducted in the fall of 2002 confirms that mental health problems abound on campus.

This proliferation of mental health problems is occurring at universities all across the country. More than 80 percent of college campuses have noted significant increases in serious psychological problems such as depression, anxiety and severe stress among students in recent years, according to a survey of counseling centers by the University of Pittsburgh.

In response to the national phenomenon and the university-specific data, Provost Biddy Martin and Susan H. Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, have established a campus-wide Council on Mental Health and Welfare to address the mental health of Cornell students.

“Information from a variety of sources, nationally and here at Cornell, indicated that the number of students experiencing mental health problems has increased significantly over the past decade,” said Murphy in a released statement. “We are concerned by this trend and are committed to being proactive at Cornell in our efforts to understand and address it.”

The 34-member council includes Dean of Students Kent Hubbell; Walter Cohen, vice provost for academic programs; Kent Fuchs, dean of the College of Engineering; Porus Olpadwala, dean of the College of Architecture, Art and Planning; Janet Corson-Rikert, executive director of Gannett; Brenda O’Brien, director of the International Students and Scholars office among other faculty, student and employee representatives.

The council will report to the University’s Executive Committee on Campus Health and other campus leaders on opportunities for improving Cornell’s environment by reducing risks, enhancing networks and increasing support for students facing mental health challenges.

Vladamir Gogish ’07 brought a freshman perspective to the council. Also a representative on the Student Assembly, Gogish volunteered his time to the council to be able to voice the concerns of underclassmen about mental health issues.

“Being a freshman in college brings an incredible amount of change and stress to a person’s life, creating a unique set of concerns for University officials and mental health professionals,” Gogish said. “Not all students deal with stress in the same way, and not all students deal with stress effectively … The University has an obligation to ensure that its students are comfortable and confident enough to succeed, and if they are seeking help or counseling it is readily available.”

“I had an officemate who was a victim of a suicide and so when I saw this opportunity I wanted to be able to do a little bit to try to prevent something like that from happening again in the future to someone else,” said Daniel Marques grad, another member of the council. “One of the things I would like to see come out of this would be to have a mechanism in place so that the University could modify its services to meet the needs of future generations of students.”

The council has been charged with studying Cornell’s culture, policies, procedures and experiences, as well as exploring the “best practices” from within the University and other comparable settings.

Cornell is ranked number one in terms of the amount of academic stress experienced by its students, according to Inside the Top Colleges. One of the council’s objectives is to determine why.

“We want to know whether there are things inside the Cornell community which aggravate students’ mental health to find out what we can change,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett and a member of the council.

Dittman believes Cornell’s Council on Mental Health and Welfare is unique from other universities’ approaches, which tend to focus on service delivery and distribution of resources.

“We are looking at Cornell’s community and environment rather than service delivery,” Dittman said.

According to the results of the National College Health Assessment, depression is the fourth most frequently reported health problem at Cornell. In addition, the survey revealed that 76 percent of students frequently “felt overwhelmed by all I had to do,” 55.8 percent of students felt very sad and 47.8 percent reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function.” Meanwhile, eating disorder visits at CAPS are up 39 percent over the last five years and psychiatric hospitalizations have increased by 17 percent over the last three years.

The creation of the council is part of a vast effort across the campus to address student welfare.

Cornell is also part of a consortium with the JED foundation, a nonprofit public charity committed to reducing the youth suicide rate created in honor of Jed Satow, a University of Arizona student who committed suicide in 1998. Cornell joined other universities, including Columbia, Yale, Harvard and MIT, to work together to share data and best practices and develop new approaches to suicide prevention.

“There’s a lot going on at once here,” Dittman said. “When you take the Council on Mental Health and Welfare, the Student and Academic Services priority for student welfare, the JED foundation — and we’re doing our own things here at Gannett and CAPS. For example, we have a department called the University Counseling and Advising Network that’s trying to identify students in distress.”

So far the council has held three meetings. The first was an orientation, the second focused on suicide prevention methods and the third discussed research on proven methods as well as research on Cornell’s student body.

This week the council will hear a presentation from Dr. Paul Joffe, director of Suicide Prevention at University of Illinois, on his innovative model for preventing suicide. The idea is not to adopt their approach, but to learn tactics that may be useful on Cornell’s own campus.

Archived article by Stacey Delikat
Sun Senior Writer