A student takes a break from studying in the stacks of Olin Library on October 9th, 2019.

Boris Tsang / Sun Photography Editor

A student takes a break from studying in the stacks of Olin Library on October 9th, 2019.

October 10, 2019

On World Mental Health Day, A Look Back at Cornell Mental Health Policy Change

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Oct. 10 was World Mental Health Day, a day dedicated by the World Federation for Mental Health to raise awareness of mental health issues globally.

The theme for this year’s Mental Health Day is suicide prevention. According to the 2018 National College Health Assessment, 62.3 percent of students surveyed “felt overwhelming anxiety” and 41.4 percent of students surveyed “felt so depressed that it was difficult to function.” More than 11 percent seriously considered suicide in the last 12 months, and 1.9 percent had attempted suicide.

On college campuses like Cornell, where many students find the academic pressure impacts their mental health negatively, mental health services are an especially important and necessary function of responding to mental health issues and concerns. While students organizations like Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services (EARS), Cornell Minds Matter, Reflect and B.O.S.S. all seek to bring together students and seek to destigmatize mental health care, most of the attention — and criticism — has been paid to the services offered by the University.

A Call for Reform

Cornell Health’s Counseling and Psychological Services and primary care medical services teams work together to provide mental health services for the Cornell community. They provide individual counseling with professional therapists, group counseling sessions, informal “Let’s Talk” drop-in visits, psychiatry services, and counselor-led workshops focusing on managing stress and anxiety while prioritizing self-care.

Cornell Health has long faced criticisms from students on the long wait times for appointments and sometimes difficult access to psychiatry services, as well as a lack of diversity among CAPS counselors.

A language barrier can also make it harder for community members to receive help. Although language translation services are available, the multistep process of scheduling an appointment through the hotline can be an obstacle to quick and convenient counseling services.

One of the most pressing calls for reform within CAPS is the current leave of absence policy. Last year, a report from the Ruderman Family Foundation evaluated the mental health leave of absence policies of all eight Ivy League universities, and not a single one received a passing grade.

Cornell received a D- based on “salient indicators” that included whether or not “community disruption” was grounds for involuntary leave. Students on leave were prohibited from visiting campus and whether or not the leave policy communicated entitlement to accommodations based on individual assessment.

For students like H.G. Bidon ’21, a leave of absence can be alienating. Bidon took a leave in April 2018 for two semesters after her sophomore year, and found that there was a lack of support available when returning to campus.

“Though it was a short and simple process to leave Cornell, I received little contact from Cornell while on my medical leave,” Bidon said in an interview with The Sun. “I wish that Cornell had more contact with me during and after my medical [leave] because it was rather disorienting coming back.”

New Implementations for Better Mental Health on Campus

In response to these obstacles, CAPS launched a new model for mental health services this semester in hopes of “providing more rapid access to care and flexibility in follow-up options.” Notable policy changes include same-day, 25-minute appointments, increased flexibility in choosing which counselor they see and the planning of future steps as well as immediate needs.

“One goal of our new model has been to provide students with support and resources early on — before a concern escalates to the level of a crisis,” said Robin Hamlisch, interim director of CAPS. “Earlier intervention can also help students learn key skills and strategies to keep future stressors in check.”

According to Hamlisch, other universities that are trying similar models of care have reported that meeting students’ immediate concerns reduce the need for “more intensive, longer-term support down the road.”

Cornell Health officials reported that their data shows an approximate 15 percent increase in the number of students who have accessed counseling appointments compared to the same time last year. There has also been an increase in students accessing “Let’s Talk” walk-in consultations and group counseling options, they said.

Although students with limited schedule options might still need to take a little longer to see a specific counselor, “overall, because [there are] more of these shorter appointments available, more students have been connecting with care,” Hamlisch said.

Three new permanent CAPS counselors have been hired in the last year, including two urgent care counselors filling in new positions as of this fall, who are responsible for assisting students with urgent needs and high levels of distress. Temporary and per diem staff have also been added in order to increase flexibility in counselor scheduling, as well as a psychiatrist within primary care medical services to consult with primary care providers who are assessing students’ mental health medication needs.

However, increasing the availability of mental health services is only one of the many solutions needed to tackle the problem. For Tim Marchell, director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, improving campus culture is equally important.

“Student distress has been on the rise, and many schools are finding that the traditional counseling model simply can’t accommodate the growing need for care,” Marchell said. “So many schools, like us, are looking for ways to innovate [by] … finding ways to support student health and well-being within the academic environment.”

The Work Left to Be Done

Despite the new policy changes at CAPS and the current in-depth review being conducted this academic year, community members hope that the University won’t forget to make changes beyond CAPS as well.

Members of the Employee Assembly hope to see more availability of mental health services geared towards staff as well as students, especially in light of the passing of Dr. Gregory Eells, a member of the Cornell community for 15 years and former director of CAPS.

Cornell Graduate Students United has been compiling a list of demands that “comprise the minimum of what we need to address the crisis” in addition to an external review, including but not limited to gym membership reimbursement, an improved referrals process, increased group therapy offerings and required mental health training for CAPS members and faculty advisors with a focus on the needs of LGBTQ students and students of color.

The Sophie Fund, a nonprofit mental health advocacy group supporting young people in greater Ithaca and Tompkins County, also presented a statement of their perspective and hopes for change to the two review teams conducting the ongoing mental health review on campus at a meeting before the semester started.

Students have also asked for Cornell to consider expanding their diversity in hiring faculty and counselors alike, in order to adequately respond to a diverse student body and to take into consideration the diversity of mental illness as a spectrum.

Neurodiversity, for example, is not mentioned as often as racial and gender diversity, which can hinder effective treatment when it comes to counseling.

“We need to change the culture at Cornell, and have professors be aware of students’ mental health needs and honor their concerns,” said  Amber Haywood ’21, co-president and mental health summit chair for B.O.S.S. “Everyone plays a role because it’s important to see yourself and have a mentor to look towards [that will understand you].”

Specifically, concerns have been raised in hopes that Cornell will make strides to address mental health in a more inclusive way.

“My last therapist was not a good fit for me because she did not understand my mental health needs [since] I have multiple mental illnesses along with disabilities,” Bidon said. “Although I’m pleased with the new policy changes at Cornell Health, there is not nearly enough support for neurodiverse students in their academics and social life, especially in counseling. [Cornell] needs to hire more therapists who are specialized in disabilities, such as autism and ADHD.”

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 caringcommunity.cornell.edu.