March 1, 2022

JOKHAI | If You Think Cornell Doesn’t Care About Your Mental Health, It’s Because It Didn’t Plan To

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On Dec. 19th of 2021, former music Prof. Robert Isaacs published a personal essay on Salon titled “Where the Depressed Are Not Welcome.” Shockingly or not, depending on one’s life circumstances, the titular place Isaacs’ article referred to was Cornell. In the piece, Isaacs ruminates on instances in his twenty years of teaching music at Cornell where he both witnessed, and was himself subjected to, Cornell’s discrimination against mentally ill people.

Specifically, Isaacs reveals that, as he learned during his time working for Cornell admissions, there is an off-the-books policy of not accepting applications that are honest about their struggles with mental unwellness — they are essentially disqualified from further consideration by that factor alone.  

“The admissions department,” he writes, “had an informal policy of rejecting any applicant who mentioned depression or other mental illness in their essay.” 

Isaacs goes on to state that the explicit reason he was given for the policy is that mentally ill students “pose a significant burden on … advising deans,” at which point he was told the issue was closed, as, “[w]e have discussed this many times in the department, and that’s our policy.”

There have, of course, been rumors of such discrimination against those with depression and other mental disorders in the college application process for a while now. When I was in high school, I remember sitting in a classroom listening to an admissions essay tutor warn us that mentioning any mental health issue would make the admissions committee deem us unfit to handle a prestigious college. After my own admission to Cornell, I even remember repeating that very same advice to those I knew who were still applying to schools, as a just-in-case measure, without ever fully believing it to be true. 

Having had my fears of very real, ongoing discrimination on campus confirmed, I wish I could say my previously instilled cyncism about the application process prevented disappointment. It did not. I was just as horrified and appalled as I suspect many students were upon learning of this practice via Isaacs’ article. And although I was horrified, I cannot say that I was surprised. This information sadly follows a logic common to many of Cornell’s practices, which additionally sheds light on Cornell’s handling of several crises in its recent history.

If there was a word second to “pandemic,” to describe the atmosphere of Cornell in 2021, it would be “crisis.” A student was found dead in every month of the spring 2021 semester, and a total of seven students passed in the fall semester, according to a count from student collective Do Better Cornell as of Nov. 18, 2021. On top of that, the fall semester saw a reported shooting threat following a bomb threat within a three-day span. 

Throughout all these crises, the idea of being “the campus on the hill,” separate and safe from the dangers of the rest of the world, seemed to many students as a farce. It would appear as though Cornell doesn’t address the student deaths as a collective event that continuously impacts the student body morale; the numbers of lost students have not been made readily accessible to the public prior to Do Better Cornell’s statement, which only adds to the atmosphere of secrecy and fear. Throughout all these examples of anxiety-inducing events, there has existed a surreal amount of dissonance between the Cornell administration’s attitudes, those of its faculty and those of its students.  

With full knowledge that many students have been severely anxious, depressed and traumatized throughout the course of these past semesters (not the least of which from the COVID-19 pandemic itself), Cornell has practically conducted itself as though it were business as usual. Aside from the cancellation of exams scheduled for the same two-day period in which the bomb threat and shooting incident occurred, assignments and prelims due that week were, for many, not adjusted at all, despite the Cornell administration suggesting “flexibility” with students. This message was often missed or ignored as it traveled down to Cornell’s faculty, and otherwise lacked any judicial structure to either incentivize or require faculty to act with the well-being of their student body in mind.

In light of Cornell’s repeated mishandlings, the Do Better Cornell student activism collective reorganized to physically hand President Martha Pollack a list of demands, including a mental health break and structural changes to Cornell’s support system. The response to Do Better Cornell from Pollack and the Cornell administration has been, in so many words, materially nothing. There were no steps taken to give tired and perpetually stressed students a break. There were no acknowledgements made that many students here were legitimately traumatized by the incident in a way that didn’t just go away with the next round of schoolwork.

When mental health does enter Cornell’s discourse, the University continues to rely on clearly and repeatedly insufficient resources (primarily Cornell Health’s Counseling & Psychology Services), which, despite their well-meaning faculty, severely suffer from bureaucratic sludge that makes acquiring services from therapists extremely difficult: Sessions are most often inordinately short, reserved for only the most at-risk or inconsistent to the point of being unhelpful. 

Do Better Cornell and the Cornell student body have largely framed what Cornell has done, or not done, as a failure. Even in this very article, I begin to characterize Cornell’s failure to materially address mental health as a “mishandling.” However, with the news of Cornell openly rejecting applicants with mental illness, it may be necessary to think somewhat less charitably in order to understand the overall logic of Cornell’s actions.

Cornell does not fail when it does not recognize mental illness as a serious concern. Every time a collection of students’ pleas for support falls on deaf ears, every time a student attempts to use Cornell’s mental health resources to no avail, Cornell did not fail. Cornell did not plan to help or acknowledge the mental health of the student body, since the literal process of which individuals are selected to become part of it is intended to suppress discussion of mental health concerns, and, to the extent possible through the medium of college essays, to preclude those who experience them from entering.

Cornell’s administration designed the student body to allow for the administration to live in a fantasy world where real world woes never intrude upon the wellbeing of the student population. The only mistake on Cornell’s part was letting some students with mental health issues slip through the cracks. In the eyes of the Cornell administration, if you are mentally ill, the failure is not in failing to understand you and your needs; the failure is you being a Cornellian.

The idea that many of us beloved students and esteemed faculty are anomalies as Cornellians is quite grim. However, this framing of Cornell as not clumsy, but rather structurally hostile towards our most vulnerable, is absolutely necessary. There is no getting around it: Cornell is engaging in discrimination. It must take responsibility, and continuing a discourse in which Cornell is characterized as “making mistakes” lets the institution continue to actively hurt our most vulnerable. I hope that one day, this article proves outdated, a piece written about a state of affairs that no longer exists. Until then, however, I urge Cornell to end its ongoing production of a campus where the depressed are unwelcome.

This is the first installation in a miniseries of articles within J-Punk titled Writings From Where the Depressed Are Not Welcome.

Javed Jokhai ’24 is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected] J-Punk runs every other Tuesday this semester.