April 30, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Mental Health Promotion And Suicide Prevention: How Is Cornell Supporting Students?

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Over the past year, many people have voiced concerns about student mental health, including criticisms of the university’s clinical services and efforts to prevent suicide. Wait times for counseling services are among the challenges we at Cornell Health have been working to address. With university support we have added new therapist positions which has shortened wait times and also increased the diversity of our staff.

Access to mental health care is critical, because treatment works and many students are in need of it. It’s also important to reach students who may be reluctant to walk through our doors, so our Let’s Talk program places counselors in locations around campus for walk-in consultations. And within Cornell Health, our mental health and medical care providers work collaboratively. During medical visits, we regularly ask patients about depression, anxiety, and alcohol use, even though they may have come to us for a different reason. If a need is identified, mental health clinicians who are part of our medical teams can provide immediate help.

While these clinical services are vital, treatment alone is not enough. Promoting student mental health and preventing suicide requires a comprehensive, public health approach that both supports individuals and fosters a healthier educational and social environment. Although the rate of suicide among Cornell students is similar to other schools in the U.S., no level of suicide is acceptable. Each suicide is a tragedy, and we continually focus on how to prevent them.

Over the past 15 years, the university has developed a Mental Health Framework to guide our efforts. The framework includes strategies to promote resilience, increase help-seeking, and identify people in need of care. We’re also working with faculty members to explore how they can support student well-being through teaching, evaluation, and advising practices. And since mental health is impacted by alcohol abuse, sexual violence, hazing and bias, strategies to address each of these are part of our approach.

Collectively, these efforts seek to support the mental health of all students and reduce the risk of suicide for those who are in significant distress. To prevent suicide, we need to focus on both the mental health of individuals and the broader context of students’ lives. We know, for example, that emotional distress and serious thoughts of suicide are higher among students of color, which reflects how racism can erode mental health. Campus climate matters to well-being.

The causes of suicide are complex, though research is pointing to common factors. Suicidal thoughts may occur when a person feels cut off from others, hopeless, and thinks they are a burden. The risk of suicide rises if gradually they also lose their natural, instinctive fear of death. When these thoughts combine, a person may then attempt suicide if they have the ability to act on their suicidal desire. That’s why preventing suicides requires two things: that we alleviate suffering, and that we reduce people’s ability to harm themselves. An example of the latter is when health care providers develop safety plans with suicidal students to put physical distance between them and the method of self-harm they are considering (e.g., by having potentially lethal medications removed from their homes). Doing so can buy time for suicidal impulses to pass.

Most people who die by suicide aren’t in counseling, so restricting access to the means of suicide can help protect those who don’t seek care. Cornell, like most other campuses, has long-standing policies to limit access to firearms and chemicals on campus. Similarly, the nets on our campus-area bridges help protect despairing members of our community when we can’t be there with them. Because of our unique topography, the nets are an essential part of a comprehensive approach to suicide prevention for Cornell and the Ithaca community.

Preventing suicide and fulfilling Cornell’s aspiration to be a caring community requires sustained and shared commitment. We need to continue to examine systems, policies, and individual actions. The challenges we face require strong partnerships between students, staff, faculty, alumni, parents, and members of the local community —all are needed as we cultivate a campus culture that supports the well-being of every person. We invite you to be part of the way forward.

To learn more about the university’s new Coalition on Mental Health and the Mental Health Framework, visit health.cornell.edu.

Timothy C. Marchell ’82, Ph.D., is the  director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health. Gregory T. Eells, Ph.D., is the director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell Health. Guest Room runs periodically. Comments can be sent to [email protected].