When Wilfred Chan, CC ’13, started college, discourse around mental health was largely centered around the absence of it. Campaigns were focused on dispelling stigma around mental health issues and seeking professional help.
But in October 2011, when Bwog reported that Tian Bu, CC ’13, took her own life, the post came with an outpour of anonymous testimonies of students admitting they, too, weren’t okay.
For the first time, Chan realized he wasn’t alone. The comments on the Bwog post not only revealed that many students experienced loneliness and mental health issues at Columbia, but also showed that students didn’t want to wallow in isolation—they wanted to get involved, be proactive, and find solutions.
This sparked the Student Wellness Project, a movement led by multiple student groups seeking to creatively and pragmatically combine students’ ideas to promote wellness at Columbia. When SWP first formed, Chan, its founder, said he was in conversation with Columbia College Dean James Valentini and other administrators, and the movement seemed to be gaining momentum. But after the initial meetings, SWP felt it was getting shuffled around.
“We just kept getting follow-up meetings, and at every point, administrators would reassure us that they cared. … But it didn’t seem like any of these meetings would lead into anything tangible,” Chan said.
While there were some moments where tangible mental health reform felt within reach, pace was slow overall, and in the two years Chan was part of SWP, none of its proposed initiatives ever came to fruition. Looking back, Chan still wonders what he could’ve done differently.
“Should we have pushed harder? Should we have taken a different approach?” Chan said. “Should we have been less trusting of administrators or should we have worked more closely with them?”
Many of the initiatives SWP was asking for, such as a website featuring centralized campus health resources or programming about coping with stress and mental health during the New Student Orientation Program, resemble initiatives launched this past year.
In March 2017, in the midst of an academic year that saw six student deaths, four of which were confirmed suicides, Valentini announced the formation of a steering group on mental health that would enter into a partnership with the Jed Foundation. JED, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the mental health of teens and young people, intended to make an assessment and provide recommendations regarding Columbia’s mental health resources.
In February, JED released 14 general recommendations for Columbia, highlighting areas that require the most time and resources, which was followed by the formation of 14 working groups in May. Nine months after the recommendations were made, in October, progress of the Columbia-JED partnership was finally made public with the launch of the Live Well | Learn Well website.
“What JED is helping us with is … how to guide [Columbia] in addressing this in terms of ‘Here’s what we ought to look at,’” Valentini said in an interview with Spectator in October. “But they know every school is different and every school is organized differently, so how we go about it, they don’t dictate that. They leave that to us.”
But when the information went live, it became clear that many of the mental health initiatives launched or in the works were ideas students have been asking for since 2013. Gatekeeper training for NSOP student volunteers was an initiative first proposed by SWP in April 2013. Reformed leave policies, campaigns for increased visibility of mental health resources, expanded services at Counseling and Psychological Services, and a website that centralizes Columbia’s mental health resources in one place were all measures requested by the Mental Health Task Force in December 2014.
According to a Columbia College spokesperson, earlier reports, such as those made by SWP or MHTF, were not taken into account because they were multiple years removed from JED’s 2017 assessment, though JED did look at more recent proposals from Columbia’s three undergraduate student councils, as well as one from the Student Affairs Committee of the University Senate.
The fact that it took five years to see some of SWP’s recommendations implemented doesn’t surprise Chan at all. One of the most visible impacts that JED has had on the discussion surrounding mental health reform is putting faculty and administrators in the same room as students. Although Columbia has made progress toward mental health reform with its recent partnership, those pushing for change—both in and outside of the working groups—have cited having difficulty reconciling the time it took for these policies and programs to be implemented when students introduced them to the administration years ago.
Currently, there still remain a number of areas where JED’s partnership with the University has yet to be opened up for direct student participation.
Who Is JED?
Columbia’s relationship with the founders of the Jed Foundation began long before 2017. The Jed Foundation was established in 2000 by Phillip Satow, CC ’63 and board member of the Columbia College Alumni Association, and Donna Satow, GS ’65, after their son, Jed, took his own life at age 20. JED is recognized in the public health sphere for its research and advocacy work.
The University first partnered with the nonprofit in 2003 to sponsor a research study on how to effectively encourage college students to use on-campus counseling. Not long after, CPS began to incorporate Ulifeline, an informational website designed by JED to help students navigate mental health issues. CPS also participated in another project with JED in 2004 to develop evidence-based intervention programs.
Similarly, Columbia’s partnership with JED Campus, a program under the JED umbrella that focuses on working directly with colleges to improve mental health resources, dates back to 2014, when the University completed a written questionnaire on mental health resources and received feedback through JED Campus. According to Lee Swain, the director of JED Campus, Columbia’s most recent partnership is a newer version of the program, which provides ongoing support through a four-year plan.
But JED is not an independent review—nor does it claim to be.
“Administrations should not point to JED as if that’s the independent outside review that’s keeping [schools] honest and keeping [schools] focused on the best practices,” said Scott MacLeod, the founder of the Sophie Fund, a mental health advocacy group based in Ithaca, New York. “It’s not that kind of relationship.”
Swain added that JED cannot force a school to complete any of its recommendations. While JED can provide thorough explanations as to why a school should listen to its suggestions, it falls on the school to decide whether or not to implement JED’s recommendations.
While MacLeod acknowledged that JED has done invaluable work to engage with institutions and raise awareness, he also said that students should not let JED be used by college administrations as “a kind of inoculation against pressure, demand, or criticism.” According to MacLeod, universities and students cannot become complacent once the school partners with JED.
“It’s something, but it’s not sufficient,” MacLeod said.
JED at other universities
After the University of Pennsylvania experienced a string of six suicides in 2014-15, the school formed a task force, in affiliation with JED Campus, to assess its mental health resources and provide recommendations. A year later, the task force released an eight page report on how to improve the quality of life for undergraduates.
But when students at Penn were able to read through the recommendations, many were disappointed by the lack of tangible action items and clear timeline in the report.
“The most infuriating part is that virtually any student grappling with mental health problems at Penn could have told the task force all of the information in this report a year ago,” one student told the student newspaper, The Daily Pennsylvanian.
This past April, the parents of Ao “Olivia” Kang, a Penn student who died two years ago in an apparent suicide, filed a lawsuit against Penn for negligence, wanton and willful misconduct, and reckless disregard. In their lawsuit, the Kangs cited the task force as one of Penn’s many failures in suicide prevention, specifically pointing to the fact that both the task force and the working groups that formed afterward lacked any student members—instead, the entire task force was made up of former and current administrators.
Seeing the flaws in Penn’s task force, MacLeod, the father of Sophie MacLeod, a Cornell student who committed suicide in 2016, asked the administration for an external review of Cornell’s mental health resources that was “independent, thorough, and transparent, and includes full student participation.”
In response, Cornell University President Martha E. Pollack assured students that a two-year external review by the Jed Foundation was already taking place. But when JED’s 55-page assessment was released, the founders of the Sophie Fund expressed dissatisfaction, claiming in a letter to Pollack that the assessment was not in fact, the independent, transparent, or robust review it had asked for and urged the administration for a second, more comprehensive review.
In response to the dispute between Pollack and the Sophie Fund, a group of students at Cornell decided to form a mental health task force to analyze policies and make recommendations themselves. This December, the task force submitted its proposal to the Cornell administration, co-signed by 273 students, faculty, and local community members.
Pollack also agreed to and announced a second review body and assessment on mental health policies and practices, which will be conducted in 2019; though preliminary discussions between students, faculty, and staff have already begun.
JED at Columbia
Andrew Rodriguez, CC ’20, knew Taylor Wallace. The two lived a floor apart in John Jay Hall and during the NSOP session on Literature Humanities, Wallace and Rodriguez hit it off over their shared interest in biology. But in October, Wallace returned home to Missouri and, later that month, took his own life.
When Rodriguez heard the news, he felt paralyzed and powerless. Like many students, he became increasingly frustrated at himself that he didn’t know what to do or how to help. In January 2017, when three Columbia students died in the span of just one week, he decided to act.
The following few weeks, Rodriguez and his friend, Morgan Kang, CC ’20, spent their after-class hours examining every area of student life in regards to mental health, from counseling services to residence halls. In early February, the two drew up a 22-page document of recommendations. They told their resident advisor Carolina Rabinowicz, CC ’18, who then recommended to send it to Nick Wolferman, CC ’17, the founder and then executive director of the Resident Hall Leadership Organization.
On a Sunday night, around 11 p.m., Rodriguez and Kang emailed Wolferman. An hour later, he replied: “Come to Hogan.”
For the rest of the night, the three of them along with Christina Park, CC ’17, then RHLO’s director of advocacy and policy, stayed up discussing Rodriguez and Kang’s document, page by page. When Rodriguez and Kang finally left, it was dawn.
Soon afterward, Rodriguez sent his proposal to Valentini and later would be asked to join a working group.
One of the recommendations that Rodriguez proposed back in 2016 was to hang posters to spread awareness about CPS’ resources. Now, Rodriguez is part of working group no. 7, which focuses on campaigns to promote help-seeking behavior. CPS posters are taped across campus, encouraging students to “Make An Appointment Today” and “You’re Not Alone.”
UPenn and Cornell partnered with an older version of JED Campus that didn’t extensively lend themselves to student participation. But Columbia has prided itself on how students have been involved in the process well before the formation of the working groups.
During the campus assessment phase of the JED partnership, students were included in the Steering Group that helped answer the 120-question self-assessment on Columbia’s mental health policies, programming, services, and outreach, while two external student focus groups were conducted. The Steering Group also considered mental health reports made by the Columbia College Student Council, the Engineering Student Council, and the General Studies Student Council, as well as by the Senate’s SAC when it was conducting the assessment.
“We have put more student input into this effort probably than any other school has ever done,” Valentini said in an interview with Spectator in December.
While these steps to include students in the JED Campus program are especially noticeable compared to peer universities, there are still aspects of the partnership that have yet to involve direct student participation.
Four out of the 14 working groups do not include student members. The objective of these groups ranges from reforming medical leave policies to improving postvention crisis resources to minimizing environmental risks for suicide.
There are two key factors that make formal student membership in a working group distinct from other kinds of involvement: Students get a seat at the table alongside faculty and administrators to shape and finalize policies, and students are able to hold a working group accountable.
According to Grant Pace, CC ’20, a member of working group no. 3 and the Mental Health Task Force, students are each other’s biggest advocates.
“A lot of the initiatives and concrete things happening now are more or less due to student input, student ideas, students who are passionate about fixing the problems they see and communicating that to [the] administration,” he said.
While Pace, who works closely with administrators through MHTF, can understand that there are reasons why students are not in certain working groups, he said, “Without knowing what those reasons are, it’s hard to say it should be different.”
When asked about these concerns, in an interview with Spectator in December, Valentini explained that being a working group member is not the only way students can get involved. Aside from working groups, other systems are in place for students to hear about and provide feedback on the policies and initiatives coming out of the working groups.
“While the student participation in [the working groups] is really important to us … student representation on the working groups is by no means the only way for us to capture the student experience or student view. If we were to rely on the membership in these groups, we would not be confident we were adequately sampling a wide range of views of students,” Valentini said. “Each of the working groups actively works to have focus groups or works through some other existing structure we have among students interested, faculty also, to get opinions.”
However, information about these additional systems, or the names of students involved, cannot currently be found on the Live Well | Learn Well website, where the full membership of each working group is listed.
How far we’ve come
Time and time again, students have pushed for mental health reform with or without structural and institutional incentive to do so. Ria Garg, SEAS ’20, who is on four working groups, no. 5, 7, 9, and 10, and has been involved in mental health advocacy through ESC since her first year, said, “There’s a few interesting points that [JED] brought up, but I think a lot of it are things students and the administration could’ve brought up.”
The JED partnership is not the only way students are at the forefront of improving mental health on campus. MHTF has frequent meetings with administrators to voice student concerns and suggestions, while Active Minds, another mental health advocacy group on campus, has launched a campaign to improve stress culture, dispel mental health stigmas, and promote self-care.
Reflecting back two years later, Rodriguez could never have imagined getting involved or becoming a mental health advocate in college.
“I thought I would spend four years here and go to medical school, and that would be it,” he said.
Rodriguez wasn’t passionate or involved in advocacy work in high school but his attitude changed when he came to Columbia. He just wanted to leave Columbia better than when he first got here.
Rodriguez, along with many of the current students involved in the working groups, was personally asked to join because he had shown interest in mental health advocacy to his peers, advisers, or administrators.
The University has a rolling interest form on the Live Well | Learn Well website to allow more students can get involved in a number of different capacities. According to Valentini, the University received 40 applications in the fall semester, and 22 new students have since been placed on working groups based on their expressed preference.
“So essentially, by [JED] identifying all these points,” Rodriguez said, “it’s now up to us.”