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In their letter to President Pollack, Susan Hack and Scott MacLeod believed the JED Foundation's review of mental health at Cornell did not address long wait times at the Counseling and Psychological Services department.

September 18, 2018

The Sophie Fund Calls on President Pollack to Reconsider Forming Independent Mental Health Task Force

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After President Martha E. Pollack rejected non-profit The Sophie Fund’s call for an independent mental health review of the University in January, its founders penned a second letter to Pollack urging her to reconsider their request following the JED Foundation’s review of Cornell’s mental health policies.

In January, Pollack stated that internal reviews along with an assessment from the JED Foundation were occurring and that an independent task force would not be necessary, The Sun previously reported.

However, Susan Hack and Scott MacLeod — the parents of Sophie Hack MacLeod ’14, who died by suicide in March 2016 while on leave from Cornell — were dissatisfied with the 55-page report of JED recommendations and four pages of Cornell responses to the recommendation. Claiming that these results were “insufficient,” Hack and MacLeod wrote a second letter to Pollack in August. They posted the letter publicly last week.

“We have examined what Cornell has made public about JED’s ‘external assessment,’” MacLeod and Hack wrote, according to a copy of the letter shared with The Sun. “We have concluded that it is plainly insufficient; it is not the independent, transparent, and robust review that we sought and that we believe Cornell’s students deserve; and it does not adequately address many of the concerns we raised in our April 19, 2017 letter.”

In a statement to The Sun, Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life, said that Cornell Health is in the early stages of planning a comprehensive review of student mental health that will bring together “internal and external partners” and begin “as soon as early 2019.” The University did not clarify whether this was directly in response to The Sophie Fund’s letter.

“While for many years the university has engaged in regular assessment of student mental health needs and evaluation of services and programs, the decision to pursue an additional comprehensive review of student mental health reflects the University’s commitment to promoting health and well-being as a foundation for academic and personal success,” Lombardi wrote, adding that this was part of Pollack’s new campus initiatives.

The Sophie Fund was started by MacLeod and Hack to raise awareness of mental health issues and battle the stigma associated with them in the greater Ithaca and Tompkins County areas.

The JED Foundation is an national non-profit organization which partners with high schools and colleges to help them improve their mental health programs, according to the foundation’s website. It conducted a external review of Cornell, and the University publicly released the recommendations in the spring.

The recommendations include having the University “develop proactive action steps” in a variety of categories, including identifying students at risk, increasing help-seeking behavior and restricting access to “potentially lethal means.”

However, MacLeod and Hack voiced concerns that the JED Foundation assessment took too long and was neither independent nor thorough.

“We do not believe that the JED review is an independent external assessment. Institutions of higher education pay The JED Foundation a $22,000 fee to join what JED calls ‘a partnership’ with the JED Campus program,” MacLeod and Hack stated. “Whatever value Cornell received from the JED review, it is more accurately described as a consulting arrangement.”

In particular, MacLeod and Hack felt that the report did not address the long wait times at the Counseling and Psychological Services department, a complaint voiced by many students.

“A glaring omission in the two posted documents is any reference — either in findings or recommendations — regarding the capacity of the CAPS counseling and psychological staff to meet the rising demand of students for services,” MacLeod and Hack wrote. “This omission is particularly troubling — anybody who listens to Cornell students’ concerns will feel the deep frustration of many of them with CAPS services.”

However, the University did hire two more CAPS counselors in March to try to address the concerns with wait times, The Sun previously reported.

But MacLeod and Hack are advocating for the creation of an independent and externally led task force that would “review and assess the mental health challenges for Cornell students, and the university’s policies, practices, and programs to address them; and to make recommendations to the Cornell President to ensure that the university is implementing current best practices.”

“As we requested in 2017, we ask that the task force’s findings be made public and be the subject of a university forum,” the founders wrote.

MacLeod and Hack also recommended that the independent task force be led by a “recognized public health expert with a strong background in mental health and without any current or previous ties to Cornell or to organizations and professional associations focused on collegiate mental health” and also that it work with the recently created student-led task force to get student input.

“We believe that the escalating mental health challenges at Cornell require a commensurate response,” MacLeod and Hack wrote. “The Cornell and Ithaca communities look to you for leadership, and we truly hope that a relentless approach to addressing student mental health will be part of your leadership legacy.”