February 21, 2011

Student Mental Health: One Year Later

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In an article by President Skorton following the string of suicides last spring, he called on the entire Cornell community — students, faculty and staff — to “improve the climate for students at Cornell.” And indeed his words were quickly translated into reality. Immediately after the tragedies, professors reached out to students and our campus was transformed into a united community that focused on student well-being.

One year later, as we look back, we are prompted to wonder whether those values focusing on student unity and well-being are permanent, or whether they were only in existence for those few fleeting months last spring. Have we returned back to our old ways or have we made progress in the state of student mental health?

In the eyes of the administration, mental health on campus has substantially improved. In a recent roundtable discussion, Provost Kent Fuchs, Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73, and Dean of University Faculty William Fry reflected upon their progress in student mental health over the past year. The three boasted that our school’s mental health services are the “gold standard” of programs in the nation, a model even envied by other universities. In fact, the executive director of Active Minds was quoted by the Student and Academic Services annual report as stating, “If every school were doing what Cornell is doing, we’d be in a much better place.” Clearly, college students everywhere would be in a much better place if fences were erected across our country’s universities.

It seems that the administration has been holed up in its offices for too long and has entirely lost touch with the student body. During the conversation, Provost Fuchs gives a complacent, one-sided description of our campus — a wonderful and caring environment filled with caring staff and faculty. His words make you wonder: If our campus is so wonderful and caring, then why has our University resorted to investing over half a million dollars towards building bridge fences to prevent suicides?

Let me clarify something for you, Day Hall: The mental health status of the student body has not changed dramatically, if at all, from a year ago.

Because today, one year later, I still see students facing the same mental health challenges. I still hear of the chemistry major who will have three prelims within a single week, despite promises by the administration to change this practice. I still see the minority student who feels underserved. I still see the freshman who feels socially isolated and has trouble making friends. And I still talk to transfer students who feel they do not belong to the Cornell community because they have yet to find their niches.

Try lowering yourself from your bureaucratic pedestal and see for yourself the realities of a Cornell student. Vice President Murphy, visit Uris Library during the early morning hours during a busy prelim week; ask the students who have their heads buried in textbooks to see what they want changed.

Dean Fry, walk over to the atrium in Duffield Hall, sit down with a few engineering students and directly gauge their major sources of stress.

Provost Fuchs, witness the state of student mental health at your University not through the windows of your Day Hall office but from the seats of a lecture hall filled with students struggling to keep up with readings and problem sets.

Then come tell me that that we have a model system for student mental health services.

If the administration wants to improve the student well-being, it must directly engage the students themselves instead of brainstorming ideas within its own circles. And no matter how many open forums you host, you will not get genuine answers until you approach us in person.

Fortunately, on the other side, the students themselves have responded successfully. The Class Councils, EARS, Cornell Minds Matter, the Student Union Board and the Student Assembly — to name a few — have organized community events uniting the student body, including programs from Procrastinate at the Straight to the Cornell Caring Community Celebration and Lift Your Spirits. A coalition of student organizations is also currently in the midst of creating a student pub to promote school unity. And the Student Assembly has written proposals to better coordinate prelim and essay schedules.

Compare these initiatives to those of Day Hall — all of which have been implemented from the top-down. The administration has published a faculty handbook offering advice to professors on ways to deal with student stress — though how many of them did diligently read the 175 page handbook remains to be answered. It has also produced a video promoting mental well-being for incoming freshman — though realistically, a fifteen minute video during freshman orientation will not change a student’s four year outlook on college. And let’s not forget its greatest contribution to student mental health: It has invested two-thirds of last year’s mental health budget to prevent students from committing suicide by jumping off bridges.

It is a shame that, despite the administration’s vast resources, none of its initiatives have directly engaged the students and their concerns despite its rhetoric on making student health the top priority.

The biggest barrier on campus is not the one that currently surrounds our bridges. It is the one that divides the students and those who are responsible for their well-being.

Steven Zhang is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at szhang@cornellsun.com. The Bigger Picture appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Steven Zhang