Supporting students mental health and well-being
We write today to offer support to the Cornell community in light of our collective loss of student Shawn West in the context of an extraordinarily difficult year. In 2020-21, we have navigated challenges from converging stressors related to the COVID pandemic, including xenophobia, health disparities, national reckonings related to racial injustice, political upheaval, and economic downturn.
The toll on students has been especially heavy. At an institution where many students already find the learning environment to be extremely demanding and struggle under the pressure to meet extraordinarily high expectations for academic performance, challenges have been exacerbated by political, racial, and health crises that have placed students’ families at risk. The impact of these acute and cumulative stressors on one’s body, mind, and emotions are profound. Stress hormones that are escalated for prolonged periods of time interfere with concentration, memory, and sleep. It is normal and understandable for students to be experiencing unusual difficulty managing their academics under these circumstances. Students are exhausted, lonely and overwhelmed; they need to be able to pause so they can process their emotions and grieve.
We are recommending that students in need of course assistance reach out directly to their instructors, and in response we urge you to respond with as much compassion and flexibility as is humanly possible. If you received an academic consideration letter for one of your students over the weekend, it is most likely related to Shawn West’s death. Please consider students’ requests through the lens of trauma response.
Depending on the course there may be a variety of ways for faculty to provide expanded flexibility to students, including excused absences, extensions on assignments and other deadlines, and make-up exams or opportunities to complete an alternative assignment in place of a missed exam. In courses where it is feasible, faculty might give students the option of skipping an assignment or test and have their grade calculations redistributed across fewer assignments. Staff in Student Disability Services (SDS) are available at firstname.lastname@example.org to provide assistance to faculty in thinking through ways to provide additional flexibility to students.
In addition, we recommend that faculty make an acknowledgement at the beginning of each class. You can also make space for students to voice their thoughts and feelings if that makes sense for your class. Sample language you might consider and modify as appropriate to your course and community:
Before we start class today, I want to take a moment to acknowledge the loss of Shawn West and how hard it is to grieve this loss in our community on top of what has already been a rough year. The pandemic has disrupted so much, but in particular it has made it difficult to be in community to find comfort in being together in difficult moments. I invite you to take a moment of silence to honor our collective grief, for Shawn and for all those we have lost this year.
I will move forward with our class today for those who are looking for a sense of structure and routine, but trust that each of you will participate as you are able and know that it's okay to step back as you need in order to take care of yourself. If you need support or assistance, please reach out to me and I will do what I can to support you and help connect you to resources. (See resources, below.)
The Mental Health Review report of 2020 issues a call to action to foster a culture that supports student mental health and well-being. Cultivating a healthy academic environment and coming together as a campus community are critical, and even more so during times of crisis. Thank you very much for all that you have done, and continue to do, to care about our students and make it possible for us to operate successfully during this pandemic.
Lisa Nishii, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Education
Kathryn Boor, Dean of the Graduate School and Vice Provost for Graduate Education
Individuals can have a diverse range of feelings, needs, and reactions when facing loss. This information about Grief and Loss (pdf) may be helpful to you or a friend. The Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. A wide range of supportive resources is also available at caringcommunity.cornell.edu.
Students in need of professional mental health support can call Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at 607-255-5155 and employees can call the Faculty and Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. Please note, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all CAPS and FSAP services are currently being delivered via telehealth. Whenever these services are closed, calls are answered by Cornell Health’s on-call mental health provider.
The Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health has developed Notice & Respond: Assisting Students in Distress as a training resource to help prepare instructors to recognize and respond when a student is in distress.