After extensive review, task forces and student input, Cornell Health’s mental health reforms went into effect with the new semester — featuring free sessions, easier scheduling and a greater variety of care options.
The reforms were first announced by Vice President Ryan Lombardi in March. The improvements include increased access to mental health care in the form of free, 25-minute in-person counseling appointments that can often be scheduled the same day, according to the executive director of Cornell Health, Dr. Kent Bullis. Longer 50-minute sessions are available for a $10 copay.
The updates were inspired by the success of the “Let’s Talk” counseling program that offers free drop-in sessions. As a part of the updated services, Cornell has expanded Let’s Talk at locations around campus and has also expanded group counseling options for those seeking peer support.
Over the past two years, Cornell Health has increased its Counseling & Psychological Services staff by 15%. Currently, there are 40 counselors on staff, 37 of them full-time, according to Bullis. This represents a ratio of 694 students to each full-time counselor.
“For context, the nationwide average for universities of our size is 13 counselors, according to the most recent figures from the Association for University College Counseling Center Directors,” Bullis said.
The increase in staff has come at a time when there has been an increase in students utilizing mental health resources, and the change in the service model is meant to account for the growing number of students that simply increasing counselors cannot address, according to Bullis.
In the last year, 25% of students used CAPS services, which was an 11 percentage point increase from the prior year.
Cornell Health is currently using monitoring tools such as an online dashboard to track appointment requests, the type of service and the specific provider. These tools allow Cornell Health to respond to the demand and improve the offerings, according to Chris Payne MHA ‘97, director of administrative services at Cornell Health.
Cornell is currently working on other projects to address student health and well-being in other ways. Dr. Timothy Marchell ’82, director of Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health, said they are currently working on a program called W.I.S.E – Well-Being in Scholarly Environments – to help the Cornell community identify students in distress in academic settings.
The changes also removed the telephone assessments that were required as the first step to receiving mental health care. Additionally, students have more flexibility in selecting a counselor. Students can select the first available appointment or look for an appointment with a provider of their choosing.
Chelsea Kiely ’20, president of Cornell Minds Matter, said she thinks the changes will most certainly have a positive impact on student life at Cornell. According to Kiely, the reforms are specifically designed to meet the needs of the large population of students who want access to counselors but do have an immediate need.
“The previous CAPS system was successful in maintaining [students’] regular appointments, but could not meet the needs of people who wanted one-time or day-of appointments, or those who wanted to switch counselors,” Kiely said.
Additionally, Kiely noted that it was difficult to enter the system by getting an appointment or even a phone interview, particularly in high-stress weeks during prelim season — as has been critiqued by many student groups.
Along with these new reforms from Cornell Health, the university announced in Fall 2018 that it would be engaging in a comprehensive review of mental health services. That review has just begun.
The review is conducted by both an internal and an external team, which will share their findings at the conclusion of the review. The internal Mental Health Review Committee (MHRC) is charged with examining the “academic and social environment, climate and culture related to mental health” of Cornell’s campus.
Bullis, executive director of Cornell Health, told The Sun in an email that he and his colleagues “look forward to gaining valuable feedback through the findings, and to identify opportunities for continued improvements to our services.”
Kiely, who is also on the MHRC, said she hopes the changes to Cornell Health build on addressing other “systemic mental health issues.”
“I hope that the Cornell administration might now look towards putting regulations on course grading/curves, caps on workload, and other reasonable changes to aid student wellbeing,” she said.
The Sophie Fund, an advocacy group focused on supporting mental health initiatives in Ithaca and said that it is encouraged by the steps it has seen the review take.
The organization submitted a presentation to Cornell’s review committees this past week, outlining numerous suggestions for the review teams to consider — from ways to alleviate institutional causes of stress to mandatory suicide prevention training for RAs.
Co-founder Scott MacLeod told The Sun in a phone interview that while the group is pleased to see that Cornell has undertaken improvements in their delivery of mental health services to students, they are also advocating for a much more comprehensive review of student mental health.
“If the environment is exacerbating students’ mental health problems, then adding more counselors isn’t necessarily going to solve that underlying problem of what is exacerbating and triggering disorders,” MacLeod said.
MacLeod hopes the university will act “decisively and robustly” in tackling its mental health crisis.
“Cornell, like many other universities, has been met with a tsunami of mental health crises involving its students, but it has not met that tsunami with a commensurate response,” he said.
Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. To access the National Crisis Text line, Text HELLO to 741741 any time. For additional resources, visit http://caringcommunity.cornell.edu/get-help/.