Cornell creates cutting-edge mental health and well-being program

As the demand for mental health services increases across the country, Cornell College is creating an innovative program, the Cornell Well-being Network, to meet the needs of its students.

According to a 2015 national report by the Center for Collegiate Health, the numbers of students seeking mental health care on college campuses increased by 30% over five years.

“Colleges and universities are on the front lines of the mental health crisis that is impacting the country,” said Cornell Vice President for Student Affairs John Harp. “This program allows us the opportunity to help students successfully navigate their way through college and establish healthy coping habits for life beyond Cornell.”

A $500,000 gift from an anonymous private foundation will fund a pilot program for the next three years, starting in the fall of 2018. Cornell College Student Affairs staff members worked with experts to create a network that bolsters existing efforts from Cornell’s counseling, health services, chaplain, and academic support offices and introduces new means for addressing mental health and well-being.

The Cornell Well-being Network provides access to services not currently available, including a telepsychiatry service that will give students access to a psychiatrist without leaving campus; a 24/7 mobile technology platform that connects students with specialists to help them feel and function better; and transportation to Iowa City and Cedar Rapids for mental health and medical appointments.

“A key part of this plan is the proactive component, which is a concept that isn’t broadly adopted by many colleges and universities yet,” Harp said. “We’ll not only implement strategies to serve students with ongoing mental health issues, but we’ll work upstream to create a campus culture of well-being through education, prevention, and self-advocacy.”

Lisa Razzano, Associate Professor of Psychiatry and Deputy Director of the Center on Mental Health Services Research and Policy at the University of Illinois at Chicago, is an advisor to Cornell for this program. The professor, who is also recognized internationally for her mental health research, says this program is unique because Cornell is recognizing mental health challenges affect students not only academically, but also as young adults.   

“Cornell has chosen to create an opportunity to take its own forward-thinking and blend that with a strong evidence-informed body of literature about mental health for students and young people overall,” Razzano said. “This can serve as a model for other like institutions, as well as demonstrate to applicants and families that Cornell is committed to the whole student experience.”

As part of the implementation of the Cornell Well-being Network, Cornell hired Marcia Sisk as health promotions director. She will manage preventative, broad-based well-being programs on topics including anxiety reduction, stress management, depression screenings, alcohol and other drug abuse reduction, sleep improvement, performance psychology, and technology dependence. The college also hired Derek Therrien ’14 as campus recreation coordinator. He’ll focus his time on engaging students in physical and recreational activities to support their overall health and sense of community. The Health Promotions Office will also employ peer educators.

“I am so enthused about the Cornell Well-being Network, not only because it addresses a growing and pressing national need but also because it addresses mental health through the lens of student success and well-being,” Brand said. “Our goal is to offer a novel, cutting-edge program–using the most current best practices outside of higher education–that helps our students to develop habits and practices that encourage daily, lifelong health and well-being.”

Razzano adds that forward mental health thinking doesn’t wait for tragedy, it tries to prevent tragedy. She says this program sets an important tone on Cornell’s campus.

“It removes the silence about needing support and helps to reduce the stigma of reaching out for mental health services,” Razzano said.  “Perhaps the greatest barrier to getting help is fear of rejection or ridicule from peers and the community. When an institution like Cornell College becomes a community leader to support mental health and wellness, it’s like giving people permission to reach out without fear of becoming isolated or rejected by their friends.”

Details about how students can use specific components of the Cornell Well-being Network will be shared via email and other methods in the coming weeks.