February 20, 2019

JONES | We Shouldn’t Be Afraid To Talk About Mental Health

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One of my Arts and Sciences Ambassador colleagues, Jady, and I casually conversed in Klarman Hall recently while checking in families and prospective students into an info session. Jady recounted an experience she had as panelist at another info session,where one audience member raised his hand to ask the panelists, “What’s your favorite location on campus?” Jady opted to answer the question and said, “I really love the bridges!”

Instantly, the mood of the auditorium got gloomy, and the room filled with an eerie, tense silence, she told me. One of the other panelists, an advising dean, gave her a death stare, followed by him shaking his head and covertly waving his hands to Jady to change the topic.

When I first heard this, I found nothing controversial or anomalous with her response to the audience member, because I knew that Jady was referring to the beauty and marvel of Cornell’s bridges; Jady told me she assumed the audience knew this as well. However, we both eventually realized that bridges also have connotations of suicide and mental health, two very prominent concerns among current and prospective Cornellians.

Unfortunately, while I didn’t have an issue with Jady’s response to the audience member, I was very bothered by the advising dean’s sudden willingness to change the topic. Rather than address the connotation of “bridge” with mental health and discussing Cornell’s mental health resources and organizations with the audience, the dean shoved the issue under the rug, allowing it to mold to the surface of another, more grotesque problem. It seems that we, as an institution, are so afraid to talk about mental health that we choose to ignore it and anything else that could give implications about it.

Choosing to ignore discussing mental health is arguably one of the worst responses because mental health is already a very prominent concern among students. Cornell’s rigorous academics, along with its notorious history of suicide rates, are only exacerbated by the fact that Cornell’s resources for mental health are simply either lackluster or not advertised to students adequately.

One of Cornell’s primary resources for health, Cornell Health, has earned negative remarks by students on Google Reviews, some of which have remarked on the organization being “awful” and having “the most dismissive people.” Also, in a PULSE survey conducted in 2017, roughly  22 to 45 percent of polled Cornellians from different colleges reported that they were generally dissatisfied with the administration’s responsiveness to student concerns.

Ignoring mental health concerns is also an indicator of a lack of effort by the University to improve mental health among students in general. It seems that in recent news, students, not administrators, have displayed considerable effort in mitigating the issue. In January 2018, the Sophie Fund, a student-led mental health advocacy group, consulted President Martha E. Pollack for an independent review of campus health services. And later that year in December, hundreds of graduate students signed a petition to persuade the University to improve mental services, according to The Ithaca Voice.

Additionally, Cornell could do better to advertise mental health resources that might be less well-known among students. Organizations like Cornell Minds Matter and the CARE Club have been active for nearly a decade and ironically enough, I’ve only heard of these organizations by word of mouth from my friends. Moreover, CMM members have reported that the organization has allowed their “voice to be heard by the Cornell administration,” according to the organization’s webpage, and interestingly, CMM is entirely student-run.

What’s most surprising about Cornell’s lack of action though is that the University has displayed understanding and effort regarding other contentious issues. The day following the last presidential election, Vice President Ryan Lombardi sent out a school-wide email to all Cornellians acknowledging that many students may be feeling mixed emotions and informing students of plentiful opportunities to discuss and address the recent event, reporting that plenty of his “colleagues in the Center for Intercultural Dialogue have worked overnight with the Student Assembly leadership… to accommodate as many members of our community as possible.”

Why can’t Cornell’s administration take similar action when it reports the death of a student that might likely have been a suicide? Or why can’t the University host more opportunities to discuss resources for stress and mental health during prelim and final exam season? And why are we reluctant to discuss health, stress, and suicides with prospective students and other non-Cornellians? As made visible by Cornell’s steadily decreasing acceptance rate, the University’s status and prestige among prospective freshmen appear to steadily increase, but this should not come at the cost of publicly discussing mental health resources. Only with complete collaboration between students and administrators can we make notable progress in improving the general status of mental health and happiness of the student body as a whole.

Nile Jones is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at nnj9@cornell.edu. Rivers of Consciousness runs every other Wednesday this semester.