March 27, 2018

LAM | No-Brainer for Improving Mental Healthcare

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Two weeks ago, a friend texted me that she wasn’t feeling very well.  I immediately wrote back, asking if she was safe and needed someone to talk to.  And, of course, I counseled that she should call Cornell Health if she needed professional help.  I remembered the number, 607-255-5155, so I typed it in the chat box. Cornell Health’s number glowed light blue, signaling that she can literally just press on the link and her phone will dial for her.  I was relieved; from my experience, timing is utterly crucial in mental health.

But a small issue quickly bugged me as I looked away from my phone: I didn’t give her the specific extension to Counseling and Psychological Services.  I tried to recall what it was. Was it four? For some reason, I thought it was four. Turns out it’s two. As I awaited her reply, I prayed internally that she would respond well to the telephone menu, not another person, that awaits on the other line.

Currently, Cornell Health heavily promotes one and only one phone number to  students: 607-255-5155. Once you dial that number you are welcomed by a lengthy, pre-recorded menu of services that includes extensions to departments from medical emergencies to billing, effectively placing these services on the same level of urgency.  This service setup makes little sense. As I’ve stated before, timing and trust are crucial with mental crises. The person-in-need requires immediate and reliable assistance and relief. Just as in any other medical situation, the onus of care should be on the provider, not the people asking for help.  Having them shuffle through a telephone menu reminiscent of Time Warner Cable call centers in the early 2000s is clearly an improper approach.

CAPS should have its own convenient, accessible hotline, separate from less urgent services at Cornell Health.  I anticipate there could be several arguments against this move.

First, the potential abuse argument is an non-issue and, quite frankly, an insult to our student body.  Just as it is statistically insignificant that victims of sexual abuse make false reports, I anticipate that people who call a CAPS emergency line for fun are nonexistent.  We all go to Cornell: mental health is a serious issue here and no one has the time to prank nurses.

Second, some may claim that that having one phone line is convenient and should be kept for that.  I agree. The line is easy to remember, but also woefully inadequate in emergencies.  When someone is triggered or dealing with a mental health crisis, they cannot “be patient,” as a Cornell Health staff once advised me to do when I complained about the number, and think through eight options in a menu.  What makes mental problems so insidious is their debilitation of the patient’s self-care capacity, similar to how HIV infects the immune system and renders its carrier’s defenses useless. People going through a mental crisis are running in a hamster wheel of destructive thoughts,  and need a literal wrench thrown into it, and fast. No matter how convenient the number is, a prerecorded telephone menu, incapable of empathy and riddled with wait times, cannot adequately serve in this capacity.

A new mental health emergency line is a no-brainer.  Even if money is tight at Cornell Health, this solution doesn’t cost a fortune. Phone lines are cheap in the grand scheme of Cornell’s budget.  Take some people from the triage desk, properly train them in dealing with mental health crises and assign them this line.

I owe a lot to the men and women who work at Cornell Health.  They’ve helped me deal with my mental health problems last semester professionally and I thank them very much.  But as the continuing public mental health crisis suggests, there are immense structural problems in not only the health facility, but the University itself.  As a mere student, I cannot propose much on those issues — it’s above my paygrade. But here is a low hanging fruit: a phone line dedicated to Counseling and Psychological Services.

Matthew Lam is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]The Despatch Box appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.