Earlier this month, Cornell held its annual Mental Health Awareness Week. Events including yoga classes, Lift Your Spirits Day and Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service training coalesced in an attempt to “stomp out the stigma” surrounding mental health on our campus. To be clear, mental health concerns are a reality for many college students in the 21st century, both at the graduate and undergraduate levels. Cornell is no different in this regard. Some students may mistakenly ignore persistent feelings of anxiety or depression due to societal stigma that denigrate their concerns. Feelings of anxiety or depression, however, continue to be the most common mental health issues among college students today.
As we promote a caring community, a concerted effort to better understand, recognize and address mental health concerns is vitally important. The Center for Collegiate Mental Health reported that over the past six years, distress levels for depression, generalized anxiety, and social anxiety have continuously increased. In fact, a national survey estimated that in 2016, one-third (34.5 percent) of incoming first-time, full-time college students “frequently felt anxious.” It is equally concerning that campus climate issues which demoralize our community members may contribute to the manifestation of these health concerns. Prior research suggests that students with lower levels of emotional health “wind up being less satisfied with college and struggle to develop a sense of belonging on campus, even after four years of college.” The question becomes, how can our community act promptly to facilitate a holistic approach towards enhancing students’ mental health?
Recent campus incidents have undoubtedly left many of us feeling mentally fatigued, more often depressed, and even isolated. Constantly fighting for our rights to live free from fear, discrimination, harassment and assault, on a campus that touts a theme of “any person,” can be draining, to say the least. It is important for us students, and student leaders in particular, to feel comfortable taking a step back and ask ourselves, “am I really OK?” Like machines, we’re programed to respond automatically to our peer’s inquiries as to how we are doing with a prompt “I’m fine.” In doing so, we may mislead our peers and ourselves as to our own mental wellbeing. We must become increasingly comfortable as members of this community in admitting when we are not ok, and recognizing that we are not alone. It is not an easy task. Upon doing so, however, we can come together as a community to better address mental health stigmas and redress our concerns.
In a recent publication by the JED Foundation it is noted that, “[m]any students who need help may be reluctant or unsure of how to seek it out.” JED further suggests that the primary obstacles to help-seeking behavior among college students are: “lack of awareness of mental health services, skepticism about the effectiveness of treatment, prejudices associated with mental illness and uncertainty about costs or insurance coverage.” Therefore, enhanced awareness of available counseling services and other mental wellness resources at Cornell becomes imperative. Mental health is a community concern and a holistic approach to addressing this matter requires the participation of the entire community — faculty, staff and students. It also requires us to become knowledgeable about, and actively encourage our peers seeking help to use available community resources.
Some Cornell students who would benefit greatly from taking a health leave of absence, or for whom a HLOA has been recommended in order to address issues of mental health, often feel conflicted. On the one hand, they recognize the need for self-care and to be well, while on the other hand, they may be concerned that time away on a HLOA may: signal that they couldn’t “handle it,” disrupt their academic plan, exclude them from their friend group and college routine, or present an unexpected financial burden. Students who find themselves in this situation should discuss these concerns with a counselor and their academic advisor in their college. Upon returning from a HLOA for mental health, students have consistently expressed that the time away was invaluable, and often continue their Cornell journey with a greater sense of resilience and significantly improved help-seeking techniques. As an advising dean, each semester I work with students to facilitate the leave process and their return to Cornell upon conclusion of a leave. Just last week I met with one of my advisees who returned this semester from a HLOA. When I asked how he was doing, he immediately told me about how he was navigating classes. Then I asked, how have you been taking care of yourself? He responded, “I met with CAPS at the beginning of the semester and since then I have visited “Let’s TALK” twice and they were very helpful… it [visiting Let’s TALK] was easy though, I didn’t need an appointment and it’s here on central campus, so I just went between classes. I don’t need to go all the time, but I know they are there and I can go when I feel the need to…but, I think, I am trying to take better care of myself.”
There are many free resources available to individuals who are dealing with issues of mental and emotional health on our campus. These resources include but are not limited to: EARS, Counseling And Psychological Services (which provide individual counseling, psychiatry, and support groups), group therapy, and Let’s TALK (a no appointment necessary, drop-in service, that is accessible on weekdays at multiple locations across campus such as residence halls, and student and academic advising centers). Whereas many of these mental health and emotional wellness resources tend to focus on engaging undergraduates, it is import that we do not overlook students in our graduate and professional schools. A recent Cornell survey highlighted that only 48.7 percent of graduate or professional students surveyed had awareness of EARS services in relation to nonconsensual sexual or relationship experiences, and just 27.5 percent had knowledge of the Women’s Resource Center. I think it’s fair to say that Graduate and professional students’ awareness of campus resources is in need of improvement.
Restrictive service hours may present another significant barrier to accessing mental health resources at Cornell. During the evening hours, CAPS — and most other Cornell Health public facing functions — offer very limited service beyond 5pm and the facility is closed at 7pm. On the weekends, services are restricted to Saturdays from 8:30 p.m. to 4:00 p.m. For the many students who seek mental health assistance outside of these operating hours, they are met with a lack of in-person resources and delayed responses. Although a 24-hour phone service exists, it would be worthwhile to explore innovative means of expanding these critically important student health services. Further, these barriers are recognized and remain a top priority of our Cornell Health team who is continually brainstorming innovative ways to address both awareness and accessibility issues.
If Cornell faculty, staff, students and student organizations proactively engage in activities designed to increase students’ sense of belonging and help-seeking capacities, this will alleviate much of the burden on students who are struggling with mental health issues. It is ok to admit that “I am not OK,” “I am not fine.” However, you are not alone, help and support are available. When a member of our community takes a leave of absence to address a mental health issue, this is an act of courage. As a community we must continue to debunk the stigmas associated with mental health as we affirm a message of care and support, “you are not alone, help is here.”
Support services are available to all members of the Cornell community. Students may consult with counselors from Cornell Health by calling 607-255-5155. Students may speak with a peer counselor by calling EARS at 607-255-3277.
Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program at 607-255-2673. The Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. For additional resources, visit caringcommunity.cornell.edu.
Dara Brown ’13, JD ’18 is a third-year law student at Cornell Law School, and is the graduate and professional student-elected trustee. Chad Coates is an advising dean at Cornell University, and is the employee-elected trustee.