Daniel Ra/Sun File Photo

November 14, 2021

I Need to Eat My Tangerines and Cornell Needs to Do Better

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You look at life differently after you’ve sat in your dorm room alone on a Friday night, calling the suicide prevention hotline because you couldn’t finish a cup of mandarin oranges. 

When I was in grade school, mandarin oranges were a luxury meant to be savored: the juice liquid gold and each piece of fruit a jewel. To unzip my pink lunch box and be greeted by D-O-L-E in bright red lettering was to be greeted by the sun. Yet, now eighteen and a college student, I could barely unseal the container — something I could easily and happily do at five years old.

I had a lot going on at the time. (I still do.) Like a dozen crying little babies, each problem I had demanded my full attention at all times, itching to be solved, but I didn’t know where or how to begin. I was exhausted of not knowing, of needing to tend to something I didn’t want in the first place. I was so drained that small tasks felt nearly impossible. That night, I told myself if there was anything I should be able to do, it was eat the tangerines. Seeing them floating like little boats in the shallow plastic cup, uneaten, felt like the ultimate testament to my incapability; if I couldn’t do this, a task a literal child could do, I couldn’t expect myself to be capable enough to get through the problems I faced. 

I called the suicide prevention hotline mutliple times throughout the days following. Those calls were the only accompiant to naps that replaced lectures, study sessions, meals, plans with friends. I called the hotline because I wasn’t sure what else I could do. One person told me to be compassionate with myself. Another told me that I can’t control everything around me and that was okay. One of the last times I called, the person told me that life is meant to be hard because people need catalysts for growth. Though what they said sounds painfully cliche, made for cheesy Instagram infographics, they were right. I couldn’t control what was happening, but I could control how I responded. I started therapy, I go to EARS when I need it, I listen to a lot of Doja Cat, I joined two support groups, I spend a chunk of my measly bi-weekly paycheck on overpriced cappuccinos, I started drawing and playing guitar again, I make plans with my friends whenever I can, I intentionally make time to watch every Blazers game live, I sometimes don’t do my homework, I paint my nails. I know I have a LONG way to go, but I’m proud of the progress I’ve made and how hard I pushed to be here. 

While I know that the decision to get help is a personal choice and responsibility, as a student, I would contend that a university should make it easier for their students to access mental health help, not harder. 

 My second week of being here, many weeks prior to the tangerine night, I went to Cornell Health seeking mental health services. Due to cultural and financial restraints, therapy was not an option for me at home. College was the first time help felt viable. I walked into the process wrongfully thinking that going to a “good,” prestigious university equated to accessing good mental health services. My Sexual Assault Victim Advocate helped me set up a consultation meeting with CAPS. The purpose of this call was to see if I was a good fit for the program. The wait time to have the consultation was two weeks. Based on what I needed therapy for, the CAPS program wasn’t suitable for me, and I was assigned to a CAPS referral manager who would help me find a therapist unaffiliated with the school. Soon after I was assigned to a referral manager, they went on leave. I was not notified nor reassigned to someone else, leaving me waiting for therapist references that would never come. It took another few weeks for me to be back in communication with CAPS and a few more to find a therapist who was taking clients. 

Though I eventually did get help, it was far from easy. On paper, statements like “I started therapy” sound simple and easy, but every decision I made to support my mental health came at a cost. Whenever I go to therapy or my support groups, I feel selfish. It feels wrong to prioritize yourself in a society that condemns selfishness and praises absolute selflessness. It feels wrong to prioritize yourself in an academic setting that values success–marked by burnout and high prelim scores — above all else. Every hour I spend at therapy is an hour I spend not studying. Choosing between good grades and good mental health, for most students, doesn’t feel like a choice; the only option is to get good grades. Sometimes it feels like I’m forced to separate myself into two beings, student and person, because caring about yourself is not conducive to the demands of being a student. To compartmentalize yourself, though, is impossible; your mental wellbeing impacts you academically. It feels wrong to prioritize yourself when your university doesn’t prioritize you either. If they don’t, why would you? 

This is not a condemnation of the individuals who work at Cornell Health; everyone who I spoke with was incredibly kind. While I understand that every institution has its limits, no student should have to wait weeks for help, no student should be denied help, no student should have to sacrifice or neglect their mental health for good grades. Some of my friends have to wait months to meet with a CAPS counselor, while others are still struggling to get a consultation call. 

Further, Cornell University’s response to the bomb threat and gunman last week was callously negligent of students’ lived reality in regards to mental health. Saying that they have resources available at the bottom of an email ignores the fact that there is a tradeoff between pursuing mental health resources and upholding academic standards that are expected of students. To say that mental health is important while denying students time to pursue help and proper, efficient resources is hypocritical at best. 

There is no perfect solution, no one thing Cornell can do. I, and many other students, understand that there are administrative hurdles to jump over in order to implement substantial action. However, that is no excuse to continue as though improvements are not necessary. To care about oneself is to take action on behalf of oneself, to care about the student body is to take action on behalf of the student body. Cornell’s current regard for the mental wellbeing of its students is harmful to the point where it can be life threatening. Students are either waiting for help, denied help, or unable to access help because of the way our institution and school culture currently function. Regardless of what we are experiencing individually or collectively, there are actions Cornell University can take. The burden should not be on the students to improve a system and culture that was supposedly made to support them. 

Kacey Lee is a freshman in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at [email protected]