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Reviewing Mental Health on Campus

West Campus is framed by a blooming cherry blossom tree.

Beginning in the summer of 2019, all members of the Cornell campus community were invited to participate in the Mental Health Review (MHR). Continuing through Spring 2020, a campus-wide survey was conducted and a diverse group of individual students, student organizations, faculty, and staff discussed mental health and well-being at Cornell within over 30 focus groups and World Cafes.

The MHR final report, released in October 2020, issued a robust set of recommendations regarding the growing needs of students facing mental health concerns and ways in which the campus environment / campus culture might change to better support student well-being.

Recommendations fell into four categories:

  • Foster a healthy campus environment
  • Promote social connectedness and resilience
  • Increase help-seeking behavior and identify people in need of care
  • Provide medical and mental health services

“I am proud of the work that the Committee did, and the vulnerability of the focus groups that participated,” said Manisha Munasinghe PhD ’20, reflecting on her involvement as a student member of the Internal Mental Health Review Committee.

Since Fall 2020, the University has been managing a campus-wide deep dive into the MHR Final Report, largely via formal and informal working groups and conversations between campus partners. Groups comprised of students, staff, and faculty have formed around a specific recommendation or group of them to look critically at the proposed changes and have been tasked with determining the best strategies toward implementation. For many groups or committees, this means developing a standard process by which to assess possible solutions to address specific recommendations. This may include conducting research or benchmarking how other universities tackle the topic. And for some campus concerns, other ideas may emerge that may have a greater impact and should be considered over the initial recommendations.

A number of the items identified in the MHR Final Report have been implemented, and many more are expected.

In academics, a credit cap has been established for Engineering students to foster greater well-being and mental health, and to standardize expectations across university programs. To better communicate expectations, handbooks were introduced for professional fields within the Graduate School. Grading policy is being assessed, as are syllabi.  Members of one working group -- the Undergraduate Education, Academic Policies, and Practices working group -- have been tasked with reaching out to other universities to research ways to standardize and improve syllabi across Cornell’s campus. This includes timing around the availability of syllabi, as well as the inclusion of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) and Mental Health statements.

Jade Ovadia ’21, who is part of this group, believes a profound impact will be made by “creating more transparency in academic policy and practices and unifying across the board an academic culture that is inclusive, equitable, emphasizes the importance of mental health. How you’re feeling mentally really impacts you as a student,” said Jade.

Groups are assessing the recommendations regarding social connectedness, help-seeking behavior, and mental health, too. A committee has formed around supporting the First- and Second-Year experience. Working groups are developing ways to best inform students about finding and using support networks, and are already providing resources to Resident Advisors so they may create intentional interactions within residential spaces.

As this deeper dive into the recommendations continues, students involved in the process shared their thoughts, identifying positive changes they have seen on campus and opportunities for continued improvement:

Delilah Hernandez ’22 expressed gratitude for flexible and compassionate professors and staff but hopes to see uniformity and standardization within and across all schools and departments. She described difficulty tapping into existing resources on campus, suggesting a possible way to improve access to resources would be considering service consolidation and better informing Cornell staff of campus resources so they may refer students.

Yasmin Ballew ’23 views mental health on campus as tied to a need for more DEI resources, work she is focused on in her role as APO President and Chief of Staff in the Office of the Student Advocate – and newly as a member of an MHR working group. “I want to see continued, increased support from faculty and administration when students like myself bring these things to their attention, like DEI training and Title IX training, and the structural support for those changes,” Yasmin said.

Breanne Kisselstein PhD ’22 said “the Grad School offers so many workshops and programming to help students build professional personal skills and not all universities offer that.” But she sees a gap between the resources available and the students’ awareness of them. “As we reach a new normal, I do think there is hope that implementing recommendations will help in the future,” said Breanne.

As a recent graduate, Manisha adds, "There is a history in academic institutions because people turnover, especially students, of sometimes forgetting the effort that people put in. My recommendation to students and faculty, if you have the opportunity to read the report, there’s some incredibly informative recommendations there and they all came from engaging with students. I’d love more people to read this report and engage with it.”

This summer and fall, updates are being made to the Mental Health at Cornell website to expand audience reach to Cornell Tech and the Mental Health Review teams will be providing increased opportunities for students, staff, and faculty to engage in this work and assist with implementation.

“I think it’s going to create long-lasting culture and policy changes that are going to create the best student experiences and the most ideal conditions for academic growth. I want to see everyone thrive and everyone do well and that’s what I believe this will do,” said Jade.