November 14, 2012

Editorial: Imagining Cornell Without Bridge Fences

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The fences went up on campus bridges over Spring Break of 2010. Those Cornellians on campus at the time will never forget the way the campus transformed over those couple of months after the suicides. Members of the community came together to support one another. Professors gave students a rare break. Students chalked supportive messages to peers on the bridges, and Cornell added counselor positions at Gannett.Like at any other university, students come and go, and the University, collectively, forgets. The only unavoidable reminders of the deaths that stunned the campus in March 2010 are the black fences lining the bridges. Those fences, however, will begin to come down over winter break. Walking across the bridges every day, you might completely forget about everything that happened. You will only be able to see the nets if you go out of your way to stop, lean your head over the bridge railing and look down.It is important that we do not forget what happened on campus. Now that the national media’s attention has diverted its focus and students have moved forward, the pressure to improve mental health on campus has eased. We must not allow ourselves to settle into complacency. Cornell needs to continue pushing forward the mental health initiatives the campus needs.In the immediate aftermath of the suicides, Cornell hired six new therapists through a $1 million increase in funding from the University and alumni donations. Additionally, Gannett moved quickly after these events to supplement other parts of its mental health framework. Cornell worked to educate students on the resources available to them, using methods like the “Real Students, Reel Stories” video shown to incoming freshmen starting in 2010. In addition, it has worked to train faculty and staff on how to identify struggling students through its “Notice and Respond” program. Everything that we have seen from Cornell has been positive, but it cannot stop here.Cornell now faces a serious challenge in finding a permanent source of funding for the counseling positions it added in 2011. Gannett’s mental health promotion efforts have successfully driven students to seek help when they need it; now, Cornell must fill this increased demand. Even with the million dollars, Gannett is only able to accommodate counseling appointments for those students who most urgently need them, using a triaging system that works to serve high-risk students first. It is not enough to only prioritize students when they are in serious need of help.One proposal to fill the funding gap is to levy a health fee. This fee would eliminate per-use fees for health services that some students are forced to pay and bolster funding for mental health programs. While we understand that a fee such as this would inevitably lead to higher financial aid costs for the University, the University should be working to reallocate resources and make funding Gannett a priority. A healthy campus is something worth paying for.After the nets are completed and the fences are taken down, Cornell cannot allow this funding to disappear quietly. There are still serious issues on this campus that need to be addressed, and we hope that both students and administrators will continue to maintain the focus on these important initiatives.