August 29, 2019

BETTEZ | The Biggest Oversight in the New Mental Health Initiatives

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During a conversation this summer with a group of MIT students I met through my Cambridge internship, we stumbled into how both of our schools have issues with mental health services. It was then that I heard about their Student Support Services, abbreviated as all college programs are by its students to “S-cubed.”

From what I could gather from the MIT website and pestering the students I knew, the student service grants extensions on exams, homework or any school assignment that students need, as well as works with them to grant extended leaves. According to students I talked to, one of its most striking features is that they ask very few questions when granting minor extensions and operate under a system of trust — assuming the best of the academic integrity of its students. The questions they do ask are centered on getting a general idea of why the students are calling the support center and ensuring their safety. They are encouraged to call for physical or mental health reasons, like waking up sick the day of an exam, the sudden appearance of a depressive episode, extreme anxiety or even going through a tough breakup with a significant other. In comparison to the strict guidelines set on my syllabi for missing classes — including one this semester that will, with “no exceptions,” drop you from the course after accumulating four absences — this sounds almost too good to be true.

As you might expect, the students admitted that the system is at times abused. But they quickly added that this fact doesn’t worry them much. One of my friends stated that she truly believes that its benefits far outweigh its potential for abuse. She would rather the few students who were willing to abuse it get a slight edge on her than for even a single student to suffer unnecessarily under the burden of their stress. This was a sentiment that several other students who I briefly interviewed seemed to share.

This same friend admitted that she is yet to take advantage of this program herself, but had still felt it had benefited her by serving as a sort of mental safety net. Although it isn’t a perfect system and not every student was content with it — as some felt it was too lax and others felt it could do more — it particularly struck me for its overall intention and purpose: to create an easy way for students to prioritize their health and happiness above their academics, allowing students to take control of their own well-being. Even more than that, it could help by improving the physical and mental health of students by making it easier to stay home and relax when sick.

We’ve all had the misfortune of taking a prelim around peak cold and flu season, when the coughing and sneezing of the other students in packed into the lecture hall with you is incessant, or worse, being one of those students yourself. The fall semester of my sophomore year, I got a cold that began mild, but quickly worsened to a two-month long bout of walking pneumonia. Instead of slowing down to let myself recover, I forced myself to work at the same pace as if I were healthy for fear of falling behind, at the cost of triggering a depressive episode.

By enforcing hard deadlines and strict standards that must be met to delay exams, Cornell sends the message that all academic pursuits eclipse students’ mental and physical health, a dangerous idea that most students at Cornell have internalized and use to force themselves to push through unnecessary suffering. The reasons that the experience seems commonplace here and why I felt compelled to push myself to those limits is a reflection of Cornell’s values as a school and our campus community.

Cornell’s issues with mental health have to do with the sort of people it attracts — intense, highly driven people prone to depression and burnout — and the kind of culture that it perpetuates on campus that often serves to accelerate it. The administration of the school is aware of this, too. Vice President Ryan Lombardi’s statement sent out to the campus on May 22 said that a major theme of the upcoming mental health review would be looking into “the ways in which the campus environment and culture contribute to mental health challenges at Cornell.” Yet, the same statement lacks immediate plans to tackle this issue. An extension of these plans unveiled recently likewise focuses solely on expanding and improving Cornell Health’s services while neglecting to address any aspect of campus culture or any other faction of the school.

The best way for the administration to make direct change is by showing us its priorities. By demonstrating through its policies that it cares more deeply about our mental health and well-being than on upholding often harsh academic standards, Cornell can encourage its students to not only adopt the same mindset, but also to clear a much easier path to prioritize it for themselves. It would undoubtedly be a significant effort to implement at a school like Cornell, especially with its many colleges and the massive diversity in its student population’s academic pursuits. But the effort of examining MIT’s approach and making necessary modifications and improvements to best serve the population of Cornell would be well worth it. Thinking back on my bout of pneumonia, I really just needed a break — something just about every student I know needs. The least the school can do for its student body is to provide it.

Michaela Bettez is a junior in the College of Engineering. She can be reached at mlb434@cornell.edu. Bet on It runs every other Friday this semester.