The parents of a Cornell student who died by suicide in 2016 sent a 13-page request to the University about 10 months ago asking for the establishment of an independent mental health task force. Last week, President Martha E. Pollack denied their request, fueling critics’ concerns about the University’s effectiveness in supporting the mental health needs of its students.
Sophie Hack MacLeod ’14 died in March 2016 from a prescription drug overdose while on medical leave from Cornell, The Sun previously reported. In her honor, her parents established a non-profit organization, The Sophie Fund, to raise awareness of mental health issues and battle the stigma associated with it in the greater Ithaca and Tompkins County areas.
In response to what they called a “systemic failure” on the part of Cornell, Sophie’s parents, Scott MacLeod and Susan Hack, asked the university to establish an independent, externally-led body that would be tasked with reviewing the mental health challenges facing Cornell students and the university’s policies, programs and practices to address them. The task force would also make recommendations to Cornell’s president based on best practices.
MacLeod and Hack said the task force should contain a majority of members with no Cornell affiliations, include a high percentage of mental health professionals, exclude Cornell employees who directly supervise mental health and related student services and include students in at least 10 percent of the body’s membership.
MacLeod declined to release the full letter, but shared excerpts of the letter with The Sun.
The letter said “failures” of the University included the lack of a suicide prevention strategy to address “the spike in suicide among the current generation of Americans” and the failure to adopt a strategy that dealt with the mental health support for victims of sexual violence.
According to a 2016 report from the Center for Collegiate Mental Health, which MacLeod and Hack cited in their letter, about 33 percent of college students who sought counseling in the 2015-16 academic year had seriously considered attempting suicide.
MacLeod and Hack also cited a 2011 PULSE survey of Cornell students which reported that 80 students had attempted suicide in a 12-month period.
A Cornell student was found dead in her apartment during finals week in December, The Sun previously reported.
On Thursday, the University released a statement in the Cornell Chronicle, which is run by the University, saying the “delivery of mental health services is a top Cornell priority” but not addressing why the task force was denied.
Last fall, the University conducted an internal review of the “operating standards and capacity of Cornell Health and the strategic directions of the Skorton Center,” the Chronicle release said.
The Jed Foundation, which partners with high schools and colleges to help them improve their mental health and other programs, also reviewed Cornell.
As a result of these discussions, Cornell identified three priorities that “need further attention,” according to the release: “Matching CAPS staffing levels with community expectations for timeliness and frequency of care, investing in other key elements of the comprehensive approach to support student well-being, campus health and safety [and] recruiting and retaining talented health care professionals, particularly underrepresented minority staff.”
In response to the University press release, MacLeod and Hack said in a statement that while they appreciated the University’s acknowledgement of mental health challenges on campus, they are still concerned about what they said is a “closed, defensive mindset in the Cornell administration.”
They said that the three problem areas identified by the university were “very vague” and did not “directly address the critical issue of Cornell’s heavy reliance on already over-burdened off-campus community mental health providers to support CAPS’s overflow of students in distress.”
Additionally, MacLeod and Hack urged the university to transparently release the findings of last fall’s review of Cornell Health and The Skorton Center as well as the Jed Foundation report.
They also expressed skepticism about the significance of the seal of approval from the Jed Foundation.
“We have great respect for the Jed Foundation and its important work on behalf of student mental health and campus suicide prevention,” they wrote. “Jed Campus is an essential program supporting improved mental health on 156 college campuses nationwide. But JED Campus’s mandate is to operate in ‘partnership’ with institutions, who pay a $22,000 fee for membership, rather than a robust, fully independent review body.”
Greg Eells, the director of Cornell CAPS, is a member of Jed’s Board of Expert Advisors, according to the foundation’s website.
In 2013, Cornell received the JedCampus Seal from the Jed Foundation. According to the University, the foundation’s assessment said that “Cornell stands out as a leader in campuswide mental health programming. This is not unexpected as your institution has been historically at the forefront of mental health services and programming.”
MacLeod said that they found in their research that the number of students seeking counseling at Cornell Health’s Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) doubled since 2003. During the same period, according to CAPS figures, the CAPS full-time staff increased by only 24 percent, the parents said.
“Students are faced with frustratingly long waiting times for appointments,” the parents’ letter read. “This leads to a failure to provide adequate attention to students who are already feeling burdened and pressured by their psychological problems and academic and social environments.”
In their letter, MacLeod and Hack said that they were particularly concerned by the university’s “institutional mindset reflecting complacency and defensiveness that appears to prioritize Cornell’s public image over the welfare of students struggling with mental disorders.”
MacLeod said Cornell, in October, participated in a high-level briefing on the Zero Suicide Model organized by the Sophie Fund for healthcare leaders. According to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, the Zero Suicide Model is “based on the realization that suicidal individuals often fall through multiple cracks in a fragmented and sometimes distracted health care system.”
MacLeod said that they asked participants to make a commitment to implement the Zero Suicide model and that “doing so would be a major step in addressing our concerns about institutional accountability.”
The parents originally sent the letter demanding an independent task force to Interim President Hunter R. Rawlings III in March 2017, on the anniversary of Sophie’s death, and forwarded it to Pollack in April after she took over as president.
The blog post issued by The Sophie Fund last week noted that when Pollack issued her initial response in May, she thanked MacLeod and Hack for voicing their concerns and told them that the University strives to be open about how it can improve its mental health policies. The request for an independent review was not directly addressed.
President Pollack ultimately denied the request for an independent task force in an email dated Jan. 11.
“We will continue bringing attention to concerns we have in the community at large, including at Cornell,” MacLeod told The Sun. “I don’t think this is the end of the road for the Sophie Fund’s efforts to bring attention to the student mental health issues at Cornell or to advocate for improvement.
“It’s going to be up to Cornell to decide how and what and when to do things,” MacLeod said. “We hope that everybody will try to do the right thing.”
Cornell also received the Active Minds Healthy Campus Award in 2015 from the Active Minds non-profit. This organization “forms peer-run groups on campuses to empower students to speak openly about mental health, educate others and encourage help-seeking,” according to the University.
“We know Cornellians struggle, too,” Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, said in the press release. “We take this seriously, and are committed to supporting our students’ mental health and well-being at Cornell.
“While we have made great strides and many improvements over the past decade, we can and will do more,” Lombardi said.