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Committee seeks input on student mental health priorities

A comprehensive review of student mental health on the Ithaca campus was released Oct. 22, and the university is seeking input from the campus community to help prioritize the report’s recommendations.

The mental health review was initiated in fall 2018 by President Martha E. Pollack after the Presidential Task Force on Campus Climate, which was convened to address persistent problems of bigotry and intolerance, linked incidents of bias with the need for mental health support.

A new Executive Accountability Committee has been formed to evaluate and prioritize the report’s recommendations. The committee is led by executive sponsors Kathryn Boor, dean of the Cornell Graduate School and vice provost for graduate education; Ryan Lombardi, vice president for student and campus life; Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president of student and campus life for health and well-being; and Lisa Nishii, vice provost for undergraduate education.

The committee will oversee three teams focused on implementing efforts in key areas – academic community, campus community and clinical services – with the participation of student advisory groups.

The university is also seeking input from the campus community to determine which report recommendations should be prioritized. The review was undertaken before the COVID-19 pandemic and recent national reckonings with longstanding racial injustice, and the recommendations do not account for their impact. The deadline to leave online feedback is midnight, Nov. 8.

“The guidance in the final report reflects widespread campus input and, as a result, the recommendations are appropriately broad in scope, across the academic, social and clinical spheres of the university,” Boor said.

“Moving forward to implement change will require careful reevaluation of our university priorities as well as changes within our policies and systems,” she said. “Implementing key recommendations will help to improve the well-being of our community, and more specifically, the well-being of our undergraduate, graduate and professional students.”

The review was a joint effort between an external team of three national mental health experts and an internal university committee co-chaired by Marla Love, the interim Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, and Miranda Swanson, associate dean for student services in the College of Engineering.

The internal Mental Health Review Committee was composed of staff, students and faculty members from across the university. They conducted a listening tour of campus and gathered information about the academic and social environment, climate and culture related to mental health.

The External Review Team evaluated the campus’s mental health services and how they align with the needs of students.

The two independent groups worked in coordination throughout fall 2019. To keep the review focused, they limited their scope to student mental health on the Ithaca campus. As the majority of the review was conducted before the pandemic and the deactivation of campus in March, the report doesn’t reflect the financial impact on the university or the national conversation about racial injustice that emerged over the summer.

“It is important to recognize that we are in a much different place today than when the surveys and other engagement activities took place in 2019,” Lombardi said. “Our current campus context will inform the priority level for some of these recommendations, and may bring out others that were not included in the report.”

The final report was prepared by the external team and incorporates the findings of both groups. It is organized around four broad themes:

  • foster a healthy educational environment; 
  • promote social connectedness and resilience; 
  • increase help-seeking behavior and identifying people in need of care; and
  • provide mental health and medical services.

The report includes specific recommendations for areas such as academic policies and practices; well-being resources; student programming; and promoting help-seeking behaviors.

Some of the recommendations proposed in the final report are already well underway, according to McMullen.

For example, over the summer significant efforts were made to streamline the Health Leave of Absence (HLOA) process, resulting in more equitable access for students seeking this important option, she said.

“Similarly, the medical and mental health staff at Cornell Health made important advances this summer in their ongoing collaboration to support psychotropic medication management,” she said. “Their shared objective to enhance access to primary care providers and psychiatry providers aims to ensure safe, appropriate and rapid access to the level of care that meets students’ needs.”

Given that the recommendations grew out of the input of a wide range of campus stakeholders, they are very thoughtful, Nishii said.

“During this most remarkable semester, we owe it to these contributors, and also to our Cornell community more generally, to consider the recommendations carefully – even (or especially) when that guidance challenges us to do hard things,” Nishii said.

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Abby Butler