September 24, 2019

LETTER TO THE EDITOR: Let’s Talk, Cornell. Enough With This ‘Grin and Bear It’ Stuff.

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To the Editor:

CW: Mental health, suicide

When I moved to Ithaca as a freshman in fall 2010, Cornell’s response to multiple deaths by suicide the semester before was both swift and controversial, yet undeniable: fences on the bridges.

Today? It’s deafening silence.

It’s now been two weeks since Gregory Eells, the former Director of Cornell’s Counseling and Psychological Services, died by suicide. Until his departure to the University of Pennsylvania just months ago, Eells spent the past 15 years working intimately with students here in both his capacity as a health care provider to our community and alongside us in our campus governance and advocacy efforts.

The Sun’s reporting of this tragedy misses the mark. The relevant coverage in no way holds the University accountable to engage with the difficult topic of suicide at Cornell at all; the reporting is so careful to skirt around the central issues at play that it reproduces the stigma around mental health and the University’s default position of denial.

The very fact that during Suicide Prevention Week a leader in our community and expert on resilience in mental health took his own life — and we have yet to talk about it or even receive resources of support of any sort from University leadership — is terribly emblematic of the culture we live, learn and work in here at Cornell.

That is a story.

It’s a story I really didn’t want to be the one to write, but one that I can’t get out of my head. It’s a story that’s not mine to tell, but the people in charge clearly don’t think it’s one worth engaging with at all. It’s a story that’s painful. It’s a story that requires incredible sympathy for Eells’ family and friends, and importantly, recognition that they deserve their privacy so they can grieve.

It’s a story that in many ways isn’t actually about Gregory Eells at all.

It’s a story that is such a significant metaphor for Cornell’s “grin and bear it” approach towards mental health crises that it should slap us all in the face. Hard. For me it did. Just one week before, I had taken to my own social media to vent about the new school year’s bombardment of obnoxiously optimistic, self-congratulatory messages from the University about our Cornell “Caring Community.” I claimed that Cornell still hasn’t done the work required to accept that the institution itself is at the heart of the stigma around mental health and resiliency here — no matter how many times it rebrands and revamps and tries to convince us that it has.

That shiny new building at the top of Libe Slope makes me want to scream.

For the first time in six years, I wrote openly about my experience losing a teammate of my varsity athletic team to suicide while we were Cornell undergrads. I recalled sitting on my bed sophomore year crying hysterically while on the phone with Cornell Health (then, Gannett), begging for help because my friend was literally disappearing. I hung up on them. When she did finally get access to mental health services, she was sent home. From there, she got stuck within a system of return-from-absence policies that are in many ways so dysfunctional and discriminatory that students like her often have their struggles compounded by the insurmountable hurdles to coming back to campus at all. I wrote that after she took her own life, it was over three months before Cornell offered our team a single one-hour group therapy session. I think one of us finally had to explicitly ask for it. That is unacceptable.

I’m horrified by the number of private messages I immediately received sharing similar stories of suicide within the Cornell community; stories that most of us have probably never heard about and that might not even be represented by a number. Certainly, risk of suicide “contagion” is something to be mindful of through reporting and facilitating these conversations. It’s important to respect family wishes. And of course, Cornell has an interest in protecting its image. But outright silence in response to these stories, whether my teammate’s suicide or Eells’, cannot possibly be the best answer. It so greatly diminishes the legacies of these beautiful people, and the impact their lives have had on so many of us who, too, are grieving.

That many people put on a brave face to pretend things are perfect while they struggle on the inside is one of the biggest hurdles to addressing mental health challenges. Ironically, rather than continuing to outwardly erase the problems that are so painfully obvious to many of us on the inside, Cornell-the-Institution could learn something from its own “caring” messages to students: Cornell could just admit it’s not okay and ask for a little help.

That’s the story The Sun should be telling.

Rebecca Harrison ’14, grad

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. For additional resources, visit