A global pandemic, economic crisis, national reckoning with racial bias and presidential election combined to make 2020 an unusually stressful time for students, the university’s first dedicated survey of undergraduate, graduate and professional student mental health found.
Conducted in October 2020 by Cornell Health’s Skorton Center for Health Initiatives, the Fall 2020 Mental Health and Well-Being Survey sought to assess the mental health effects of those significant societal stressors and the university’s shift to hybrid and remote instruction, and provide baseline data for evaluating the impact of the Mental Health Review, whose final report was released the same month.
The results affirmed the review’s call for a comprehensive, public health-focused approach to mental health on campus, rather than one based solely on treatment, university health leaders said. An Executive Accountability Committee was tasked with engaging campus on the main areas of the review – academic environment, campus community and clinical services.
This semester, the Executive Accountability Committee announced implementation progress including the launch of a new central mental health and wellness resource website and a new peer support model adopted by the student-led Empathy Assistance and Referral Service (EARS). Two committees also formed to focus on Cornell’s academic environment, after students at each level identified “academic responsibilities” as the No. 1 source of stress, as well as additional progress on addressing findings of the survey.
Overall, nearly 48% of the more than 4,800 students who responded anonymously and voluntarily to the survey reported experiencing moderate or serious psychological distress in the previous 30 days. Nonwhite, LGBQIA+, female or nonbinary-identified students reported some of the highest stress levels.
The Cornell student findings likely reflect “normative and predictable” difficulties adjusting to the 2020 fall semester’s unprecedented challenges, rather than an absolute increase in diagnosable disorders requiring clinical treatment, according to the survey report. They also show that disparities found in the overall U.S. population exist in Cornell’s student body.
The survey results showed student mental health is critical to learning. Roughly a quarter of students at each level said that in the 30 days prior to the survey, they’d been unable to function academically – such as missing classes or not being able to complete homework – for at least a week due to anxiety, stress or depression. Over the period from the pandemic’s onset in March 2020 to October 2020, those totals rose to 43% of undergraduates, 46.3% of graduate students and 36.5% of professional students.
The survey also queried students about suicidal thoughts and attempts, use of alcohol, marijuana and other recreational drugs, loneliness, coping strategies and resilience.
Undergraduates last fall reported slightly lower rates of high-risk drinking and consistent rates of marijuana use, the survey found, and there was not a significant increase in suicidal ideation or attempts. That issue remains a serious concern, according to the survey report, with rates at Cornell similar to those reported nationally in the American College Health Association’s National College Health Assessment.
The survey report aligns each finding with selected recommendations from the Mental Health Review. Regarding the top stressor of academic responsibilities, for example, the report cites seven recommendations that aim to reduce unnecessary academic stress and alter the culture of competition.