January 16, 2013

Asking the Important Questions

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A few weeks ago, just as I was starting to settle into the life of a pathetically lazy vacationer, I took a short break from BravoTV OnDemand and logged onto Facebook to find 17 of my friends sharing an article entitled “CM’s Most High-Strung Schools.” According to College Magazine (admittedly not the most reliable of sources), Cornell University tops the chart as the most “competitive, challenging and stress-inducing school.” Citing the gray weather and the way Cornell makes you feel like you are “no longer at the top anymore, but no matter how hard you try, you never will be,” CollegeMagazine crowned Big Red the most high strung college in the country. Congratulations in order? Perhaps not. Although some Cornellians have, in my experience, been rank-obsessed, I am certain that — at least in this category — out-performing MIT and Harvard is less than flattering.

In its feature, College Magazine factored Cornell’s “alarming number of suicides” in into its score. Although certainly not the most statistically sound report ever published, College Magazine’s article proves — yet again — Cornell’s knack for gaining (and maintaining) a rep as “the suicide school.”

We talk a lot about emotional wellbeing on Cornell’s campus because our nationwide reputation has unfortunately left us no choice. With programs like Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS), Empathy and Referral Services (EARS), “Lets Talk,” trained R.A.’s and multiple public health campaigns driven by Gannett and student organizations, Cornellians are inundated with information daily about ways in which they can seek support if and when we need it. And it works. CAPS serves 3,000 students annually and, although there are no posted statistics for EARS, I have spent many afternoons in their offices, and the service is used widely for problems of every shape and size. In the wake of tragedy (although, by the way, it is still up for debate whether Cornell’s suicide rate is any higher than other schools’ of the same size or if the gorges just make them more visible), we have found an opportunity to grow as an institution.

Cornell has approached suicide prevention in two ways: Not only has the institution tried to reduce the opportunity by installing nets under bridges, but, perhaps most importantly, it has also worked diligently to disentangle why Cornell students are stressed, depressed and afraid to seek help. As a community, we are more aware of what mental health is (and is not), and more willing to ask for support when we need it.

Reading College Magazine’s critique two short weeks after the Newtown tragedy, I couldn’t help but be reminded of the deadly combination of poor mental health and a means to do harm. Although I say it rarely, I believe Cornell could serve as a role model for many. Instead of focusing solely on the availability of guns (although this is important and deserves its own conversation), any fight to end mass shootings should start at the underlying determinant: the suffering soul. Too often in popular press, politics and law, mental health is swept into a cloud of titles and black and white categorizations: bipolar disorder, schizophrenia or, most commonly, “mentally ill.” I wonder what would happen if instead of labeling people as “crazy,” we looked deeper into their lived experiences — their tendencies, their environments and their beliefs. I wonder what would happen if instead of fighting about arming teachers with guns, we talked more about training teachers to detect depression in early childhood. I wonder what would happen if instead of incarcerating “crazy” criminals we looked at their misconduct as a product of their suffering and looked for ways to help them heal. I wonder what would happen if T.V. and movies portrayed happy and healthy people living full lives while seeing therapists, proving that counseling isn’t only for those on the extremes of the mood scale.

We are emotional beings. Our physical and social environments influence our biology. Today, we know more about the emotional beings we are than we ever have before. And yet, mental health is still far too often generalized into broad categories. We focus on the negative effects of mental health without paying enough attention to its root causes. We talk about the guns and the deaths, the drug deals and the violence without asking the important question of why.

Cornell has started to ask the important questions and has started to find answers. However, College Magazine’s unflattering article and Newtown’s mourning families remind us all that we are emotional beings who change. They remind us that “crazy” doesn’t have to be deadly, and that bridges and guns are only half of the picture. I am willing to go to The Most High-Strung School if it means digging deep and asking why — if it opens up a space to ask for help.

Hannah Deixler is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at hdeixler@cornellsun.com. Shades of Grey appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

Original Author: Hannah Deixler