November 2, 2015

GUEST ROOM | The Crazy Thing About Mental Health Week

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“The easiest Ivy to get into, the most difficult to get out of.” Cornell University’s reputation is not always one to envy. Worrying about prelims, papers or presentations, watching sleep-deprived students trudge around campus, talking to friends about ever-impending deadlines, students feel the stress of Cornell every day. But only on anonymous platforms, such as Yik Yak or Overheard at Cornell, do the true costs of this enormous stress begin to surface.

Five years ago, in response to the suicides of six students, Cornell built fences and posted security guards and installed cameras on the bridges that span its gorges. Twenty-nine people, including fourteen Cornell students and one Ithaca High School student, jumped from Cornell bridges between 1990 and 2010, according to a study on suicides the University commissioned in 2010. Then-president David Skorton pushed for the expansion of Gannett Health Services’ mental health counseling. Permanent nets were installed on five Cornell bridges.

Last month, as the university proclaimed on campus and online, held Cornell’s first “Mental Health Awareness Week.” Its purpose was to “stomp out stigma” surrounding mental health at Cornell. As administrators are quick to point out, the suicide rate at Cornell is lower than the national average of 6.6 to 7.5 deaths per 100,000 students. The 2010 changes in mental health services have led more students to seek help from the university’s Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS).

However, as Rebecca Kruger pointed out in a recent Daily Sun blog post, for all of the life-saving work that the Gannett staff does, it is woefully understaffed and struggles to address the urgent needs on campus: There are 21 counselors for the 2,800 students who use CAPS each year, or a daunting 133 students for every counselor. It’s a shame, but no surprise, that when a student calls Gannett’s emergency support line, he or she is typically asked to wait weeks to receive treatment. Hopefully the ongoing expansion of Gannett will address these problems, but for now they remain.

Yet in spite of all of the attention they receive, stigma and the resource shortage at Gannett aren’t our biggest mental health problems. The real issue is the University’s failure to sincerely address the underlying causes of mental illness at Cornell. Not unlike its stressed students, the administration of Cornell University is all too prone to acting as if everything is fine. The history of suicide at Cornell tells a different story. No photo shoot on Ho Plaza, and no social media campaign with a hashtag thrown together in a focus group will change that. No net prevents suicidal feelings. The increase in Gannett staffing in 2010 was an important step in the right direction, but a change in Gannett is not a change in the Cornell experience.

If insanity is changing nothing and expecting a different result, then our attitude towards mental health is insane. To the community here at Cornell, the students, the professionals at Gannett, the University staff and faculty and to President Garrett, I say: Let’s have a real mental health week. Let’s talk about depression. Let’s talk about suicide. Let’s talk about the crushing workload that most students struggle with, as well as the significant disparity in workload, difficulty and grading standards between the seven undergraduate schools. Let’s talk about grade deflation, and student inability to fully engage with academic, athletic and social groups on campus. Let’s talk about rampant abuse of alcohol and “study drugs.” Let’s talk about how Greek Life impacts our social scene, and the role and form student government should take. Let’s talk about a “residential life” where students move off campus and away from each other. For once, don’t think about the negative publicity. Think about the students at risk.

Nathan Weierich is a sophomore at Cornell. He can be reached at Guest Room appears periodically this semester.