March 21, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Pushing for Mental Health Reform at Cornell

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Warning: The following content contains sensitive material about mental health and depression.

Cornell’s response to six student suicides between 2009 and 2010 was the installation of nets over Ithaca’s gorges. These nets — monuments of the mental health crisis at Cornell — overshadow both Ithaca’s natural beauty and Cornell’s stellar research infrastructure. They remind us that something is wrong on Cornell’s campus. Six years after starting my astrophysics Ph.D., I still remember the first time I saw the nets. Every year, prospective graduate students ask me about the nets, and every year I have to explain Cornell’s history with mental health. I remember how, years after starting at Cornell, during the worst of my depression, those nets were a daily reminder of the dangers posed by untreated depression. 

But Cornell’s mental health crisis won’t be fixed by nets: Nets reduce Cornell’s liability, but they hardly address the mental illness that has led to so much tragedy. What about comprehensive, accessible preventative mental health care? The chronic understaffing of Cornell’s mental health services must end.

Today, Cornell graduate workers, undergraduates and community members will attend Cornell Graduate Students United’s rally for improved Cornell mental health services.  We will be delivering our mental health petition to the Board of Directors Committee, requesting an opportunity to present our petition and mental health campaign to the board. Our petition is the result of a mental health survey conducted by CGSU, which over 900 Cornell graduate workers have signed.

Thursday’s rally represents an escalation of CGSU’s mental health campaign.  We held a similar rally last semester — along with several other students, I shared the story of my struggle with mental health on the front steps of Cornell Health. We spoke about the extreme depression we experienced on campus, but despite that, we remained positive about the help we had when we finally got through the unnecessarily bureaucratic mental health services protocol.

I talked about how wonderful my Cornell therapist was, but also how sad I was when I learned from my friends about how the University’s mental health services remain so understaffed that only students with the most severe cases (like mine) can benefit.

After last year’s rally, over 100 graduate students walked through the freezing cold to President Martha Pollack’s office to deliver our petition. Neither President Pollack nor Provost Michael Kotlikoff were in Day Hall when we arrived, so we left the petition, along with paper copies of our personal stories. We left contact information so the president could follow up with us about setting up a meeting. Despite the fact that our petition was signed by over 900 graduate students, and that our speakers focused on how we might improve the positive aspects of Cornell’s mental health services, the administration never offered to meet with us.

Sharing the story of my mental health experience at Cornell felt liberating — the speakers as well as the people gathered at the CGSU rally realized we weren’t alone. The way the administration dismissed us shocked me.

Cornell graduate workers need comprehensive mental health reform quicker than Cornell recognizes. We cannot wait for the administration to understand the magnitude of this crisis on its own. We need Cornell to commit to a timely, public external review and to meet the other demands of our mental health petition.

We need mental health reform. Depression and mental health problems are serious, but they are almost always treatable or preventable. I, and the rest of Cornell Graduate Students United, refuse to stand by as our peers struggle with mental health. That is why we’re appealing to Cornell again this week.

Join us as we rally at 1 p.m. in the courtyard between Uris Hall and the Statler Hotel. We’ll be delivering our petition to the Board of Directors, since many decisions regarding the distribution of resources at Cornell are in their hands. Whether you are a graduate student yourself or a supporter of improving Cornell’s mental health services, we need your support. Let’s end the mental health crisis on Cornell’s campus together.

Thea Kozakis is a graduate student at Cornell. She can be reached at tk543@cornell.edu.