Many Cornell students would agree that the University is a stressful one. To some, however, it can be more stress than they can handle. To help students cope with personal stresses and the pressures of challenging academia, Cornell provides services such as the Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services and the Counseling and Psychology Services.
Both are in place to ensure that a high level of mental health remains amongst students, but, due to recent legislative decisions in Virginia, the steps that institutions like Cornell take when dealing with students in need of psychological assistance have been brought to the forefront.
Last month, the Commonwealth of Virginia passed a law that prohibits its public universities from punishing or expelling students with suicidal tendencies, thus putting pressure on the universities to deal with the mentally ill students.
“Legislation is too general too deal with the variety of individual issues and needs,” said Alice Green, an EARS advisor. “My own feeling is that it is a very individual decision whether [students] want to stay in college. Sometimes, it is helpful for students to stay in college for support, and sometimes it is helpful to go home and get away from the pressures,” she said.
Greg Eells, director of CAPS, also disagrees with the way Virginia is handling the situation.
“Virginia has good intentions, but the legislation will not be effective in practice,” he said.
Instead, Eells supports polices like the ones adopted by Cornell; he said that the University does not expel students, but can require a student to take an involuntary leave of absence if need be. This policy exists in order to prevent students from harming themselves or those around them. The conditions of some students who are in need of psychological assistance can lead them to make decisions that are not good for them. This is an issue that many health professionals face and can lead to very complicated and ethical situations.
“We want all of our students to be safe,” said Kent Hubbell ’69, dean of students, who serves as a liaison between student students, faculty and staff. “Their health and safety comes first. If a student might harm himself or others, we have to be concerned.”
According to Green, EARS deals with students on a case-by-case basis.
“We should not make any assumption that anyone’s problem is the same as others. In EARS, we help students come up with individual solutions,” he said.
Eells said that the first step when dealing with students is to provide them with counseling. If students who are depressed receive treatment, the counseling provides a protective factor of times six, which means that the students are six times less likely to hurt themselves.
“Cornell University does a good job. I have worked with universities where mental health is not a priority. Money would be better spent paying for assistance rather than trying to craft a law,” he said.
Despite having the involuntary leave policy, according to Eells, in the four years he has worked at Cornell, the University has not used it. Usually students will take a medical voluntary leave of absence, so the involuntary leave is not enforced.
Contrary to popular belief, the rate of students with suicidal tendencies is not greater at Cornell than it is at other universities, according to Eells.
Last year, Cornell participated in the National College Health Assessment and found that 11 percent of its students have suicidal tendencies and 1.3 percent have actually attempted to kill themselves. The NCHA compared Cornell’s data to that of other colleges and found striking similarities.
Despite the average amount of the suicidal tendencies at the University, “We strive to reach out to students who are feeling suicidal,” Hubbell said. “We want to be sure to help them. Every suicide is a tragedy and even one is too many.”
“This is a very hot topic that a lot of universities are looking at,” Eells said. “Universities looking to have general legislation is wishful thinking. My best response is to have general policies to fall back on, but handle things on case-by-case basis.”