Operational changes to Cornell’s peer-led counseling program, EARS (Empathy, Assistance and Referral Service), will reshape the student organization this spring, and new opportunities will be developed for students to support one another and bolster campus mental health.
A recent review by the university’s Office of Risk Management that reexamined EARS’ work determined that the organization will no longer be able to offer peer counseling because it is not covered under Cornell’s general liability insurance. EARS will continue to play a crucial role, however, by widely supporting student health and well-being through outreach and training work and developing new ways to promote peer support within the campus community.
In an additional change planned for this spring, based in part on the recently completed campus Mental Health Review, advising for both EARS and the campus mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter will transition from their current structure within the Office of the Dean of Students’ Care and Crisis Services to Cornell Health’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives.
“With the transition to the Skorton Center, EARS has a remarkable opportunity to redefine what peer support can look like,” said Felisha Li ’22, EARS co-executive coordinator. “The goal of EARS remains unchanged as we all strive to make this a more humane place.”
Li, along with other EARS staff, received information communicating the necessity and details of the changes to EARS last week.
“While formal peer counseling will no longer be offered, there are many ways EARS students can support their peers going forward, including directing peers to a wide array of caring resources on campus,” said Sharon McMullen, assistant vice president for health and well-being. “Professional mental health support through Cornell Health’s CAPS [Counseling and Psychological Services] and medical services will still be available, as will access to advisers, coaches, professors, campus staff and other critical supports on campus. That said, we are eager to see how the future peer-support efforts of EARS students might help shape the campus climate and bolster student resilience.”
EARS is one of the oldest peer counseling campus groups in the country, founded in 1972, but the university’s comprehensive approach to mental health does not rely on peer counseling, McMullen said, and student utilization of EARS counseling has decreased significantly in recent years. By contrast, demand for professional counseling services through CAPS continues to increase.
Cornell’s liability insurance would only be able to support peer counseling as a part of clinical training associated with a degree program, and Cornell does not offer any graduate clinical training programs of this nature.
EARS’ mission to continue
The concurrent move of EARS’ and Cornell Minds Matter’s advising structure into the Skorton Center makes sense, said Tim Marchell ’82, director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, as the center already focuses on approaches such as self-care and resilience, culture change, and the promotion of broad mental health resources.
“EARS has a rich history of supporting students’ emotional well-being,” Marchell said. “The Skorton Center staff is excited to help the current EARS students enhance their outreach to the campus and develop new ways to support student mental health.”
“At the heart of it, EARS is about empowering peers to foster a more empathetic, more connected Cornell community,” said Jeannie Yamazaki ’21, EARS co-executive coordinator. “As we have worked to adapt – both to the pandemic and now to this transition – we won’t lose sight of this. I feel so lucky that I get to belong to a group of people who are so skilled, caring and dedicated to the well-being of the community.”
EARS will continue training students – training that has long been useful to students whether or not they ever served as peer counselors or planned to do so. Reba McCutcheon ’96, associate dean of students, care and crisis services as well as an adviser for EARS and Cornell Minds Matter, explained that the EARS community is unique among student groups because several semesters of this training are required before joining.
“EARS training offers communication and life skills to help you become a better roommate, friend, sibling, student, employee – ways to make you a better human,” she said. “Once honed, these skills give back exponentially.”
“Like many of the folks who have joined EARS training, I hoped to become a better listener and source of support to my peers,” Li said. “While I also looked forward to counseling, I’ve come to learn that EARS is so much more than that. It’s the training that connects over a hundred students and staff each semester, the empathy and listening workshops that reach organizations all across campus, and the dedicated, brilliant EARS staff who make it possible. All of this is here to stay.”
University and Cornell Health leaders have already begun discussing the impact of these changes and will be meeting with EARS leaders to explore new ways of addressing the needs that the organization can help fulfill while refining its mission and vision.
For more information, visit the Peer Support page within Student and Campus Life.