April 2, 2013

Anonymity ‘Cathartic’ In ‘Cornell Confessions,’ University Officials Say

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Cornell University Confessions, a Facebook page that asks students to share their secrets online and promises “100%” anonymity, has become wildly popular at Cornell — drawing more than 7,263 submissions this year. The confessions page may meet the emotional needs of students who feel disconnected from their peers, according to Cornell’s mental health resource staff.

The founder and one of the moderators of the page –– who The Sun is referring to by a pseudonym, “Zach,” because of his desire to keep the page’s moderators anonymous — said he saw a disproportionate number of posts by people who sounded depressed when he founded the Cornell Confessions page.

“I was actually pretty alarmed when I first started,” Zach said. “There were a ton of depressing confessions submitted.”

Greg Eells, director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Gannett Health Services, called Cornell Confessions “compelling” and said “it obviously meets an emotional need for students.”

“Part of its appeal is it’s really touching upon — in an honest way — people’s feelings of loneliness, disconnection and psychological and emotional pain,” Eells said. “I think there’s a certain sense of universality people feel, which can be really powerful. If I’m suffering and think I’m the only person feeling this way, and I put something out there and now I know that you’re feeling in a very similar way, that has a lot of power for both of us.”

Janet Shortall, assistant dean of students and advisor to Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service — a student-run organization offering counseling, training and outreach programs — said anonymity can often be reassuring for students. She said EARS training includes a game that groups play where, much like Cornell Confessions, students anonymously write down a secret and trainers read the comments aloud.

“We recognize that it can be quite cathartic to reveal parts of ourselves anonymously,” Shortall said in an email. “Occasionally, however, someone will reveal something that is distressing and … saying it out loud has begun a conversation of a sort.”

The “confessions” posted on the page range from the lighthearted — including professions of admiration for other students and complaints about a lack of toiletries at locations on campus — to serious issues such as stress, depression and loneliness.

Zach said he sees Cornell Confessions as a resource for students who are struggling.

“The pretty alarming ones [I’ll submit] just so people can get advice. [Cornell University Confessions is] kind of an outlet for people to tell people their troubles anonymously and for people to get advice … a sort of social care network,” Zach said.

Eells said that despite the sense of community Cornell Confessions content can help provide to students, it is important when reading posts to remember that confessions have a “filtered” nature.

“Social networks … serve a certain purpose,” Eells said. “I think of my own Facebook page; [the] stuff that’s up there is what I choose to put up there. … Everything we do on social media is filtered, it’s created, so it’s not factual in that sense. It may convey a certain truth, a certain purpose, [but I] don’t want to push it to be something it’s not, … [to be] some factual statement on what people are actually experiencing.”

Eells added that it is possible that some posts are not generated by students.

“The reality is that some of those posts could be [from] a 50-year-old in his boxers in South Carolina … putting things on there because it’s entertaining to do that,” Eells said. “There’s no way to know one way or another. … It is something that is a combination of real experiences with artistic expressions. People are confessing what they want to confess and responding to what they want to respond to in ways that are selective.”

Both Eells and Shortall expressed hope that students in need will continue to take advantage of on-campus mental health resources like CAPS and EARS.

Eells noted that some posts on Cornell Confessions that appeared troubling elicited comments from students recommending Gannett services, which he said he thinks “is great and speaks to some of the [mental health services] information that’s out there.”

Still, Zach said he was inspired to create confessions pages because he thought they would prompt people to reveal their innermost feelings. He referenced an Oscar Wilde quotation, which reads, “Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give him a mask, and he will tell you the truth.”

“With anonymity, you get the real person,” Zach said. “Now, I moderate that and edit it to make it not so explicit, but for the most part, you get more to the core of the person under the cloak of anonymity.”

Original Author: Emma Court