The first general body meeting of the newly created student association “Cornell Minds Matter” was held yesterday evening in the International Room of the Straight. The organization, which was created in order to give members an open forum in which to discuss mental health issues as well as to gain insight into the fields of psychology and clinical psychiatry, was founded by Rahul Banerji ’07. Prof. Harry G. Segal, psychology, is the faculty advisor.
The creation of Cornell Minds Matter was a personal mission for Banerji. He decided to form the organization during the spring semester of his freshman year, after reading an article about depression amongst college students in Current magazine. The article listed on-campus resources at several other universities for students to learn about mental health issues, but Banerji was unable to find similar organizations at Cornell.
He noticed that there are recognized organizations for people with diabetes or cancer but “even the term ‘mental illness’ has a stigma attached to it.” Noting that resources such as the Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service (EARS) do exist, he said, “I wanted to create a real organization to talk about mental health.”
Segal, who gave an opening speech at the meeting, was pleased to see an organization created to promote mental health awareness. “Every campus has an attitude and culture of getting help,” he said, recounting a study he conducted while a professor at the Hobart and William Smith Colleges. He compared the population of students who were depressed and stressed and who went to get help at counseling centers at Ithaca College and Cornell, and to his amazement found that they formed two “completely different groups.”
“Ithaca College students went to the therapist every week,” he said, to talk about various stressful episodes in their lives, such as a breakup in a relationship or stress during exams. “Cornell students only go when they are at the point of death.”
Segal noted that Cornell students “function at a very high level of stress,” especially since they are surrounded by so much achievement. Segal admired that students are “so strong and determined and just carry on” in the face of stress, but felt “badly that you are suffering more than you should from soldiering on.”
Segal noted that today there appears to be less of a stigma associated with “getting assistance”, but said that among the public it is “still shameful to be known to be ‘in therapy.'”
Banerji and Segal feel it is especially important to bring campus-wide awareness of mental health now, as depression is the fourth most frequently reported health problem at Cornell according to the National College Health Assessment. Psychiatric hospitalizations have increased by seventeen percent over the last three years and Cornell expects an average of 1.56 students to commit suicide every year, according to the Council on Mental Health and Welfare.
Banerji felt it was also important to bring awareness about mental health to Cornell’s Asian population, who are more likely to report significant difficulties with sleep and stress. According to an October 2004 Asian and American Campus Climate Task Force Report, preliminary Gannett data show that Asian and Asian American students constituted a disproportionately high thirty five percent of the psychiatric hospitalizations and twenty five percent of the medical leaves of absence taken by students.
Banerji, who disclosed that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, has had to personally deal with a leave of absence as well as facing the South Asian community at home.
“As an Asian myself,” he said, “there are unspoken social mores. You are expected to be the best you can be, to always put your best face forward. Mental illness is considered to be a major weakness of character, and some Asians fail to recognize that it is biological, not merely mind over matter.”
When Cornell forced him to take a leave of absence, he recounted that he was “so ashamed, so embarrassed,” and mentioned that it has taken two full years for him to become well enough to get his “life back on track.” Still, he feels the Indian community at Cornell has not been supportive; he noted that even after repeated requests, the creation of Cornell Minds Matter was not publicized amongst one of the larger South Asian organizations on campus. “It feels to me again that mental illness is too stigmatized within the Indian community,” Banerji added, but hopes that through many future events all members of the Cornell community can openly talk about mental health issues.
Archived article by Samira Chandwani
Sun Staff Writer