Cornell to implement innovative approach to student mental health services

A new approach to Cornell Health’s clinical mental health services will be implemented next fall, according to Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life.

Students will be able to access mental health care when they need it, through 25-minute goal-focused counseling sessions that often can be scheduled the same day. Additionally, the length and number of sessions each student receives will be matched to that student’s needs and goals. Lombardi announced the changes in an email to all students March 20.

According to Cornell Health staff, the new model of care is an adaption of a system currently in place at Brown University that has been successful in supporting seamless and rapid access to mental health services.

“Conversations about the increased demand for mental health services have been happening at colleges and universities across the country,” said Robin Hamlisch, interim director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Cornell Health. Hamlisch said some of the many factors contributing to the increased demand include: a rise in student distress, including the impact of local and national events, especially on students of color; increased pre-existing mental health diagnoses and registered disabilities; and increased student willingness to seek help.

For several years, Cornell Health has been responding to these growing student needs. In 2016-17, CAPS provided care to 21 percent of Cornell students, up from 13 percent in 2005-06. New resources were allocated to grow the CAPS staff by 14 full-time employees in the same time frame, three of whom were hired in the last year. Significant mental health support is also provided through Cornell Health’s primary care medical services, including screening for mental health concerns during medical appointments, and behavioral health consultations to support student well-being.

While much is changing in CAPS next fall, some key programs will remain the same. “We will continue to provide – and may even enhance – ‘Let’s Talk’ hours, drop-in workshops and a range of group counseling options,” Hamlisch said. “These kinds of strategies are very effective in increasing access to care for students and are compatible with our evolving model of care.”

Dr. Kent Bullis, executive director of Cornell Health, said the organization is committed to “making system changes to support a fundamental change in the experience for students seeking care. We are confident that when students return in the fall, their experience of mental health services will be significantly improved.”

At the same time that Cornell Health is planning to change its delivery of clinical services, a separate comprehensive review of student mental health, announced by President Martha E. Pollack last fall, will be undertaken by both an external review team and an internal university committee. The review stems from recommendations in the final report of the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, issued in June 2018, which also revealed a correlation of incidents of bias and racism with the need for mental health support.

An external review team will come to campus next fall to evaluate Cornell’s clinical services as well as a wide range of campus-based services, systems, policies, programs and initiatives, through the lens of best practices in collegiate and community mental health.

The external review will be enhanced by the work of an internal university committee comprising students, faculty and staff, which will gather information about Cornell’s environment and culture to help determine how they impact mental health on campus.

The internal committee will launch this semester and will be co-chaired by Miranda Swanson, associate dean for student services in the College of Engineering, and Marla Love, senior associate dean of students for diversity and equity.

In his message to the student body, Lombardi expressed gratitude to the wide range of stakeholders who have been advocating for improvements to campus mental health. “The spirit of collaboration, engagement and understanding of the complexity of these challenges has allowed a campuswide group of stakeholders to come together toward a common vision: promoting health and well-being as a foundation for the academic and life success of all students,” he wrote.

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John Carberry