November 16, 2010

Getting on Board With Mental Health Changes

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While Resolution 40, the Student Assembly’s mental health magnum opus, is not perfect, the resolution is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. It also serves as a useful barometer of the on-campus environment regarding mental health — one in which students and the administration are aligned for change, but faculty seem unaware of a problem or are unwilling to change their practices.

Last semester’s tragedies focused the community’s attention on the overarching issue of mental health at Cornell. The administration took steps to improve the mental health of students: It extended counseling hours and flooded students with messages of wellness and community. Students, for their part, have more regularly utilized the resources the University has to offer, and have organized a number of mental health-focused events. Some individual professors, too, have extended their caring and support to stressed-out students, both after the suicides and throughout this semester. But those professors are in the minority.

The “silent majority” of professors — those who remain unaware of the existence or magnitude of problems with the mental health environment on campus — is a massive obstacle to changing the academic culture on campus. Cornell has long been known as “the easiest Ivy to get into, and the hardest to get out of.” It is understandable and appropriate that faculty and students alike take pride in the University’s academic rigor — it is, after all, what makes Cornell, Cornell. But the silent majority must realize that improving mental health practices and fostering a caring attitude do not compromise the University’s academic standing — these initiatives can only improve its overall reputation. Frequent sleepless nights and barely-passed classes should not be a point of pride for Cornell students or faculty — instead, we should be touting our academic productivity and healthy learning environment.

The fact that the S.A. felt the need to pass a rule giving overworked students a break — if they have three assignments worth more than 20 percent of their grades within a three day span — speaks volumes about the sad state of our faculty’s appreciation for the severity of mental health on campus. While some may criticize the S.A. for the arbitrariness of its numbers — why not four assignments worth 15 percent or two assignments worth 50 percent — the S.A. realized that a simple resolution asking the faculty to be more considerate would not be enough. We would prefer if the mental health culture on campus could change without such specificity, but unfortunately the faculty’s resistance to change thus far suggests that such hard and fast guidelines are necessary.