Boris Tsang / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Mental Health Task Force letter drop at Day Hall on November 30th, 2018.

December 1, 2018

Student-led Mental Health Task Force Submits Recommendations to Administration

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The student-led Mental Health Task Force formally submitted a letter to Vice President of Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi on Friday, outlining proposed actions to improve Cornell’s mental health services.

In January, President Martha Pollack rejected calls by The Sophie Fund — a mental health advocacy group — for an independent review of campus mental health services. The Sophie Fund called an assessment by the JED foundation and internal University reviews “insufficient” in a letter in August.

Following Pollack’s announcement, the student-led task force, now co-chaired by Joanna Hua ’20, Matthew Jirsa ’19 and Chelsea Kiely ’20, began a months-long process of drafting recommendations to the University, culminating in the letter on Friday. As of Sunday evening, the letter had 273 co-signatures from students, faculty and community members.

“Definitely, the ball’s in their court. They should be responding to this; they should be committing to more of what we’ve outlined in there,” Jirsa said in an interview Friday morning.

Proposed reforms outlined in the letter include hiring more CAPS counselors, increasing access to off-campus mental health networks, appointing permanent mental health advocates as liaisons between students and administrators and creating a transparent grading scheme to ease stress.

Kent Bullis, executive director of Cornell Health since July 2017, was also present during Jirsa’s reading of the letter. Bullis expressed his support for including students in the University’s reform efforts.

“I’m very grateful to have folks that are like-minded and have the same concerns that we do. One of the things we always struggle with is making sure we have the student voice represented in the ways we’re thinking about things,” Bullis said in an interview with The Sun.

The letter’s recommendations are not binding, but Jirsa hopes they will be considered during the University’s comprehensive review slated to start some time next semester. Lombardi said in an email Friday that the details of the review, including the membership conducting it, have not yet been worked out.    

The letter was presented a day after the Student Assembly voted to recommend a $20-30 increase to student health fees to the Student Health Benefits Advisory Committee. The SHBAC is a body of students, administrators and staff that will in turn decide whether to send that proposal to Lombardi.

The recommended $20 increase would apply to both the student health fee and the regular Student Health Plan and SHP+ plans. The student health fee is an out of pocket cost paid by all students not enrolled in the Cornell SHP to cover administrative costs and on-campus health services; the increase would represent a 10.9 percent raise over the 2018-19 rate of $183 per semester.

This increase, according to Student Assembly President Varun Devatha ’19, wouldn’t create a financial burden for students.

“The most vulnerable of the communities, that do receive financial aid, won’t be severely impacted,” he said.

Lombardi said in an email early Friday afternoon that he would give the S.A. recommendation “a very close review,” and “consider it very strongly.”

The S.A. recommendation was informed largely by results from a survey of undergraduate and graduate students sent in mid-November. According to Devatha, the survey found that 80.75 percent of students considered adding counselors a “medium” or “high” priority, and 74.89 percent of students believed that opening Cornell Health on Sundays was of “medium” or “high” priority.

S.A. ultimately voted to recommend that the increase only be used to fund the addition of more counselors and not Sunday hours.

A $20-30 increase could contribute “somewhere in the range of 5 to 6 additional counselors deployed in various programs within Cornell Health,” according to Chris Payne, director of Cornell Health’s administrative services, who fielded questions from the S.A. on Thursday. Payne listed programs such as CAPS, “Let’s Talk” and behavioral health consulting programs as possible beneficiaries of the increased funds.

Currently, Cornell Health has 18 psychologists, 18 clinical social workers, three psychiatrists and two psychiatric nurse practitioners, according to Sharon Dittman, director of community relations for Cornell Health.

Lombardi returned to campus Thursday evening from a meeting in St. Louis with university officials in comparable positions from many other schools, including Duke, Brown and the University of Miami. Many of them expressed concerns about mental health services on their campuses as well, Lombardi told The Sun.

“Every person in my seat said we could double our therapy staff tomorrow and we’re not sure it would be enough. Everybody’s feeling that pressure on their campus to do more and try to figure out the best way to do it,”  Lombardi said.

In a follow-up email, Lombardi clarified that while he was not advocating against an increase in staffing, he doesn’t believe that adding counselors alone will solve the “broad mental health challenges that we face as a campus.”

This article is part of the Loneliness Project: a multimedia collaboration between WRFI, The Ithaca Voice, The Cornell Daily Sun, and the Ithaca College Park Scholars.