Cornell Health is approaching a socially-distanced semester with new challenges, and has added a new member to its team to help address them.
Alecia Sundsmo took the helm as the new director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell Health July 1. She inherits a program that was making strides toward ensuring Cornell’s mental health services were more flexible and accessible — but now with the added challenge of coronavirus distancing restrictions during the fall semester.
CAPS offers mental health services such as short-term counseling with professional therapists at Cornell Health. As its director, Sundsmo will work with Cornell Health, the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, occupational medicine and Student Disability Services on mental health and wellness, according to a University press release.
Sundsmo wrote that her primary role will be to “provide leadership around mental health, both within CAPS and Cornell Health and across the university,” in an email to The Sun. This includes supporting the CAPS staff, managing budgets, ensuring CAPS follows regulations and maintains quality of care.
She said she also plans to continue refining the new model of mental health services that Cornell piloted in August 2019.
The major changes in this new model include increased availability of same-day 25-minute counseling sessions with no copay and greater flexibility in selecting a counselor. Students can either book the first available counseling session or choose one with a specific provider.
Before taking on her new position in Ithaca, Sundsmo served as the clinical director of mental health services at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. She received a doctorate in clinical psychology from Pacific University’s School of Professional Psychology.
The new CAPS director acknowledged the changing nature of mental health services as a response to COVID-19. CAPS made its services available remotely after campus shut down in March. Students can now receive mental health care via phone or the Cornell Health secure message portal, while they navigate social distancing restrictions during the upcoming semester.
“We anticipate that we will continue to offer counseling and support services through telehealth, refining and adapting these services as student needs evolve,” Sundsmo wrote.
Sundsmo said she is passionate about reducing barriers to mental health and plans to make sure CAPS services are inclusive and equitable. Sundsmo added that she hopes to address “the systemic factors at the departmental, institutional and societal levels that enable these barriers to persist.”
In an effort to bolster its diversity and inclusion efforts, Cornell Health collaborates with campus partners who work with marginalized communities, offers translation services in more than 200 languages for students to communicate with their health care providers and works to address financial obstacles to receiving care.
Sundsmo said she aims to continue improving the representation of BIPOC, LGBTQ+ and other underrepresented minorities on CAPS’ staff.
“I am committed to diversity and inclusion and am eager to engage in the campus and community dialogue about racism, anti-racism and implicit bias,” Sundsmo wrote, adding that these issues directly impact mental health.
Moving from Wisconsin to Ithaca has posed its fair share of challenges for Sundsmo — uprooting her family and traveling, while forging new friendships in Ithaca during a pandemic. However, Sundsmo was optimistic.
“All the challenges were outweighed by the exciting opportunity to contribute to campus mental health here at Cornell,” she said. “The Cornell Health community has been exceptionally welcoming and I look forward to the days ahead.”