April 10, 2018

TRUSTEE VIEWPOINT | Student Burnout and Why We Should All Be Concerned

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Spring break has come to a close. What for most of us was a reinvigorating escape from the academic rigor of Cornell will quickly spiral into a rather nerve-wracking finals period. This transition period has always called for members of the Cornell community to come together and foster an encouraging and supportive academic environment. While we frequently place the onus on our administrators to cultivate a caring community through mental health and social services, it’s time to take a step back. It’s time to acknowledge how students and faculty members can better recognize and address students’ mental health concerns on our campus.

Cornell’s 2017 Perceptions of Undergraduate Life and Student Experiences (PULSE) survey revealed that within the prior year, nearly 43 percent of undergraduate students felt as if they were “unable to function academically for at least a week due to depression, stress or anxiety.” In addition, the impacts of stress, anxiety and depression are more deeply felt by underrepresented minorities on our campus. The PULSE survey revealed that nearly 73 percent of American Indian students, 59 percent of Black students and 49 percent of Hispanic students were unable to function academically for at least a week due to these pressing mental health concerns (it is worth noting that only 11 American Indian students participated in the 2017 PULSE survey while 231 Black students and 509 Hispanic students participated). Notably, this survey was administered in the spring of 2017 before a sequence of events occurred that further impacted our student morale.

When reflecting on mental health challenges within the graduate and professional student community, the 2017 Doctrinal Experience Survey revealed that 44 percent of graduate students cited mental health as posing a minor or major obstacle to their academic progress in the last year.

Analyzing these statistics within the academic context reveals that 43 percent of undergraduate students felt “unable to function academically for a least a week,” and may have missed anywhere between 10-20 classes. These students experiencing mental health challenges are then forced to accommodate for over 10 hours of additional coursework, overlapping assignments and forthcoming exams. Additionally, 44 percent of graduate students were taken away from their coursework, teaching responsibilities and research obligations. Undoubtedly, a student’s initial anxiety, stress or depression will increase without adequate accommodations. This is where our faculty and advisors can help.

Cornell faculty and advisors can play a supporting role for students facing mental health issues by first, acknowledging campus, national and international events that may attribute to student mental health challenges, and second, providing students with adequate accommodations.

All of our wonderful faculty members and advisors recognize that when campus, national and international incidents occur, they inevitably impact students in varied ways. By explicitly acknowledging campus hate crimes and national disasters in the classroom, however, faculty members make themselves relatable to students suffering from the negative impacts and implications of these events. Our Dean of Faculty has drafted and provided explicit guidelines for faculty members to review when these incidents impact our campus climate. These guidelines provide a step-by-step instructions for how faculty members may effectively acknowledge campus controversies through “simple and direct expressions of concern and support.” According to these guidelines, “General, inclusive, concise and purposeful expressions of personal concern and support that directly refer to actions that can be taken to care for oneself and others are best.” The guidelines advise faculty members to “Be prepared to respond calmly and be open to listen to any unexpected or emotional reactions to your best intentions.” Importantly, the guidelines urge faculty members to “recognize that these incidents affect both individuals and communities, here at Cornell and off campus.”

It’s obvious that our faculty members and advisors care about students’ well-being. In fact, over 1200 of our faculty members have undergone training to better respond to students’ mental health challenges. Nevertheless, putting this training into practice remains essential to providing adequate student support. The same goes for illnesses and other unexpected life happenings. When students convey signs of mental or physical health problems, faculty members and advisors should recognize and respond to them. The Dean of Faculty’s Guidelines for Discussing Political Conflict and/or Incidents of Public Violence and Extreme Expression, the Intergroup Dialogue Project, Center for Teaching Innovation, and Office of Diversity and Inclusion all provide valuable resources for faculty members struggling to formulate the language to use and actions to take in effort to acknowledge campus climate issues and student health concerns.

Faculty members and advisors can further support students by providing adequate accommodations for students experiencing mental health challenges. Whether it be a rolling deadline with penalties imposed for lateness or an alternate test for students who are demonstrably unable to take an exam on the scheduled date, faculty members and advisors should consider a broader range of solutions for equitably and adequately accommodating student facing these heath challenges.

Students can also play a greater role in supporting their peers experiencing mental health challenges. Teaching assistants, resident advisors and graduate resident fellows are obligated to recognize the scope of their duties and position of authority. Students serving in these roles often serve as go-to advisors for other students battling mental health issues. Recognizing students’ mental health concerns is an inherent part of their jobs. It’s possible that the job descriptions or hiring processes for students’ holdings these positions need to be updated to explicitly recognize students’ obligations to play supportive roles. However, right now, in the midst of finals season, TAs, RAs and GRFs must acknowledge that they hold the authority to make or break a students’ experience and success at Cornell.

Students who are not experiencing mental health challenges can also play a role in supporting their peers. Cornell Health’s development of the Notice and Respond: Friend 2 Friend  Workshop was designed to help students identify their role within Cornell’s support network and to brainstorm ways to effectively respond to peers showing signs of distress. While the current Friend 2 Friend Workshop has been specifically tailored for undergraduate students, the Graduate and Professional Student Assembly is striving to expand the workshop’s accessibility to graduate and professional students. Increasing access to this training, and providing students with frequent reminders of its core components, is one step towards enhancing student support. The next step must include a will on students’ behalves to take what they have learned and to apply it in a way that effectively supports their peers facing mental health challenges.

For some students, self-care and mental health days can sufficiently circumvent their mental health challenges. For other students, who need additional assistance, it’s time to recognize the significant role that heightened faculty, advisor and student support can play in enhancing the student experience here at Cornell.

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 is a Cornell University Law School student and the graduate student member of the Board of Trustees. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.