October 27, 2020

LORENZEN | It’s Time for Cornell to Aspire for Better Student Mental Health

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Content Warning: This article discusses mental health (i.e. depression, anxiety, stress, etc…) and sexual assault.

“Any Person, Any Study” is not a motto. It is a right. It is a right extended to every single student throughout Cornell’s community which ensures that Cornell will use its unparalleled resources to support each student in the pursuit of their academic interests. Cornell’s track record of fighting to live up to that lofty phrase is strong, but the recent Mental Health Review shows that the entire premise of Cornell’s mission is under threat by ailing student mental health on campus. Research from that report shows that over 40 percent of Cornell students were “unable to function academically for at least a week due to depression, stress, or anxiety” in 2019. Cornell cannot fulfill its academic mission until it improves campus mental health.

The report details both major successes and major issues in Cornell’s current mental health efforts on campus. It’s important to note that Cornell’s mental health resources genuinely have had quite a lot of success and deserve plaudits. The Skorton Center’s “interactive bystander education programs” have made a real impact. The student-run Cornell Minds Matter organization has done wonders for raising awareness and reducing stigma through their events. CAPS has received acclaim for its “Let’s Talk” program, and reforms to its delivery service model in 2019 have drastically improved student wait times and access to care. There is absolutely a great deal working effectively when it comes to mental health on campus, and there have been important breakthroughs in recent years. The alarming problems the review addresses are not the product of a failing system but, rather, the product of one which needs greater resources and greater attention by University administrators.

Chief among these problems is a toxic culture of competition which creates a race-to-the-bottom in student mental health. The report details how “students maintain a culture of competition in the curricular, co-curricular, and social spheres, which normalizes course and extra-curricular overloads that can become detrimental to physical and mental health” — a finding which will come as a surprise to exactly zero students. I genuinely cannot remember a single time I’ve asked a Cornell student how they’ve been doing in the past year, and they’ve replied with anything positive. Sadly, I don’t think I’m alone in that. The answers range from “Well, you know… hanging in there” to “I’m dying,” and none of them are good.

The competitive culture of Cornell permeates every facet of the student experience and encourages a race to push yourself to the brink more than everyone else, to strive further, to toxically break yourself down more because that somehow proves you are more successful. You worry you are not doing enough if you only take eighteen credits … literally the recommended maximum in Arts & Sciences. Your self-esteem ebbs and flows with the resume building acceptances and rejections of the highly exclusive extracurriculars which the report directly points to as drivers of student stress. Even Collegetown housing feels like a race, you start looking for apartments a year ahead of time, before you even know what in the world Cornell will look like the following year in the context of an ongoing pandemic.

It’s a culture which drives stress, anxiety and a perpetual sense of isolation. It’s a culture which is, quite frankly, not conducive to learning. Competition and pressure are healthy necessities of a college experience, but there are reasonable limits to such things to prevent burnout. Cornell’s stress arms race is so pervasive that this “need to be productive at all times couples with the sense that “everyone is stressed” at Cornell seems to deter students from prioritizing self-care or seeking help before symptoms become acute.” We’ve normalized suffering as the Big Red way. That’s simply not okay.

The review lays forth a host of recommendations to improve upon the status quo, divided into three categories: immediate, intermediate and aspirational. Many of these proposals are incredibly valuable and would make a tangible impact. For example, while the review rightfully lauds existing mental health resources on campus, it identifies that Cornell lacks the “cohesive university strategy with central oversight” which exists at universities such as MIT and Duke. The report recommends taking steps like making “a comprehensive and centrally maintained wellness app with information about events, initiatives, information and resources related to wellness and stress reduction offered throughout campus.” There are also a host of specific measures which would likewise be enormously impactful such as increasing “the number of sexual [assault survivor] advocates to a level that reflects best practices for an institution of Cornell’s size.”

Both of those aforementioned recommendations are marked as “aspirational” rather than immediate or intermediate, yet neither should be. The Cornell administration should aspire to rectify the dangerous mental health climate on campus by fully pursuing these “aspirational” measures. A “cohesive university strategy with central oversight” is badly needed — especially as the extreme pressures of the pandemic have worsened campus mental health in a drastic way not even evaluated in this report since it is focused on the previous school year. Moreover, while I defer to the judgement of experts, it would seem remarkably important that Cornell have enough sexual assault survivor advocates for its institutional size, and if they currently don’t, then the situation should be addressed in the immediate term. And those are merely two examples from a thirty six page report.

The administration should solicit as much feedback from the community as possible over proposed measures, something which Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi made a point of emphasizing in his comments to The Sun as he called for a “collaborative” process. After adapting to this essential feedback, they should move to turn the aspirational recommendations of the report into immediate action which improves student mental health and thus, allows Cornell to fulfill its academic mission of “Any Person, Any Study.”

Cornell has made significant improvements to its mental health resources in the past few years, and there are countless incredibly hardworking organizations and individuals doing wonderful work to support students campuswide. But we can still do better than a university where 40 percent of students cannot function for at least a week every year due to stress, depression or anxiety. This report lays out a path towards a healthier, more supportive, and happier Cornell. It’s a Cornell I think we all would aspire to attend.


Andrew Lorenzen is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected]. When We’re Sixty Four runs every other Tuesday this semester.