Cornell reviews its mental health approach, looks ahead

As students return to university campuses across the nation, studies show, many will deal with depression, anxiety and thoughts of suicide.

“We know Cornellians struggle, too,” said Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life. “We take this seriously, and are committed to supporting our students’ mental health and well-being at Cornell. While we have made great strides and many improvements over the past decade, we can and will do more.”

That long-standing commitment was reinvigorated in 2010, when Cornell strengthened its comprehensive public health approach to mental health. Since then the university has worked to improve its services and coordinate campus efforts to address student mental health concerns. It also has conducted and invited others to conduct reviews of its mental health services and the systems, policies and programs that affect student well-being, Lombardi said. From these reviews Cornell has identified several areas for future focus.

According to the National College Health Association, nationwide the number of students reporting depression has jumped from 32.6 percent in 2013 to 40.2 percent in 2017. In the same time period, thinking about suicide rose from 8.1 to 11.5 percent and attempted suicide from 1.3 to 1.7 percent, nationwide.

Following the national trend, rates of reported depression, stress and anxiety among Cornell students also have risen during recent years.

Statistics show more students at Cornell are seeking mental health care than in the past: Cornell Health Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) provided care to 21 percent of Cornell students in 2016-17, up from 13 percent in 2005-06. According to CAPS director Gregory Eells, this increased demand is due to both an underlying rise in student distress and to students being more open to seeking care.

“Cornell’s mental health framework has provided a structured but flexible way to examine our policies, practices and services in relation to student well-being in a consistent and ongoing basis, and to offer students the resources that can help them through the stresses of the college experience,” Lombardi said.

Delivery of mental health services is a top Cornell priority, he added. New resources have been allocated to grow the CAPS staff from the equivalent of 22 full-time employees in 2006 to 32 in 2018. During that same time period, the financial resources invested in CAPS have increased by more than $2.5 million.

The framework also integrates prevention, early identification and crisis management efforts across campus. New programs in resilience, meditation and intervention have been developed since 2010, many based on a peer-to-peer model.

The university boosted the mental health framework’s visibility and reach with the establishment in 2015 of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives in Cornell Health, which develops and evaluates mental health-related strategies and provides leadership for universitywide public health initiatives, policies and coalitions.

Cornell was awarded the JedCampus Seal by the Jed Foundation, a national organization seeking to reduce suicide rates among college students, in 2013. The university also received the Active Minds Healthy Campus Award in 2015 from Active Minds, a national nonprofit that forms peer-run groups on campuses to empower students to speak openly about mental health, educate others and encourage help-seeking. Cornell’s mental health services also were reviewed during Cornell Health’s reaccreditation in 2015.

This past fall, Cornell Health and university administrators reviewed the operating standards and capacity of Cornell Health, the strategic directions of the Skorton Center and the 2017 external assessment and campus visit summary by the Jed Foundation.

“From these reviews and other conversations, we identified three areas that need further attention,” said Lombardi. These are:

  • Matching CAPS staffing levels with community expectations for timeliness and frequency of care;
  • Investing in other key elements of the comprehensive approach to support student well-being, campus health and safety;
  • Recruiting and retaining talented health care professionals, particularly underrepresented minority staff.

Significant progress has been made in enriching the diversity of the CAPS staff over the past year, and discussions continue about how to approach each of these areas, Lombardi said. “Well-being is foundational to the student experience at Cornell, and it will remain one of my top priorities moving forward.”

More information on Cornell’s mental health framework and initiatives is on the Cornell Health website.

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John Carberry