Of all the things Cornell University wants to be known for, suicide isn’t among them. And yet, after years of trying to shake the image that it’s a “suicide school,” as one official called it Monday, recent deaths have made it difficult not to associate the upstate New York institution with an above-average suicide rate.
Last Thursday, police recovered the body of William Sinclair, a sophomore engineering major, from near a bridge that traverses one of the gorges that cut through the Ithaca campus. Matthew Zika, a junior also studying engineering, jumped to his death from another bridge the next day, police reported, though his body has not been found.
The two apparent suicides, coming in such rapid succession, would have alarmed any campus -- or, as Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, put it in a video posted on the university’s Web site Saturday, they made for “an especially painful week.”
Coming as they do on the heels of another student suicide off a bridge in February and three more suicides during the fall semester -- as well as five other student deaths caused by illness or accidents -- the deaths have shaken the campus. “The cumulative effect of this loss of life is palpable in our community,” Murphy said.
The university has stationed police officers and security guards on all of the bridges that cross Cornell’s gorges, and extended the hours of several campus counseling options. Over the weekend, staff members knocked on the door of every on-campus residence to check on students. Faculty members have been told to be especially sensitive to students’ needs and “to help put the academic rigor that we know is part of Cornell in proper perspective,” Murphy said.
The half-dozen suicides in the current academic year mark the first instances of student suicides at Cornell since 2005. Stepped-up efforts to help students with mental health issues that began in 2002 and intensified after David J. Skorton became Cornell’s president in 2007 are “at least anecdotally … helping people,” said Simeon Moss, a university spokesman.
In the last decade, Cornell has tweaked its interpretation of the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act to consider students their parents’ dependents, making it possible for administrators to notify parents of lagging grades or mental health problems without a student’s consent. It has trained more people -- including dormitory custodians -- to be on the lookout for signs of mental illness, and created a team that meets weekly to discuss students observed by police and administrators to be struggling.
Keith J. Anderson, a staff psychologist at Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute and chair of the American College Health Association’s Mental Health Best Practices Task Force, said that Cornell seems to have done many things right. “I’ve been familiar with their efforts and I think they do as much as anyone could do,” he said. “There’s always going to be debate over whether suicide is really, truly preventable in all cases.”
“Our programs are excellent,” Moss said. “Actually, we’re looked at as a model across universities” for having strong mental health programs, but even model programs can miss some students. Though it’s “been a tough year for the campus, with a number of deaths -- not just suicides -- can we say that what we’re doing is not working?” he asked. “Absolutely not.”
Nonetheless, “we’re always trying to improve,” he said. “We’ll look at every case to see if there’s something that we could’ve done or we can do differently in the future.”
The Role of the Gorges
In the six years between 2002 and the end of 2007 (and the beginning of the 2009 fall semester, for that matter), when The Wall Street Journal wrote about the university’s broad approach to address students’ mental health problems, there were five student suicides at Cornell, none of which were after 2005. In the six years before that, there were 11.
All those numbers, and statistics reaching back decades, university officials have long been quick to assert, don’t mean that suicides are more common at Cornell than at other colleges.
In November 1994, after two student deaths in the gorges in the span of two weeks, The New York Times quoted an administrator who sought to play down Cornell’s suicidal reputation. “There is a myth surrounding the number of suicides here,” said David I. Stewart, then-director of community relations. “There is not a larger-than-average number of suicides on the Cornell campus.”
In a Web cast streamed live Monday morning, Gregory Eells, director of counseling and psychological services, and Timothy Marchell, director of mental health initiatives, again tried to quell that myth.
“It’s well known that Cornell has a reputation as a ‘suicide school,’ which is not consistent with the reality of the statistics,” Marchell said. “And so we’ve asked ourselves, well, what leads to this, what contributes to that misperception?”
His answer: the gorges. “Suicide that occurs in most communities is not something that happens in public, is not visible,” he said, noting that news media often don’t report on suicides because they happen privately and there are often concerns about copycat suicides.
But, “when a death occurs at Cornell in one of our gorges, it’s a very public experience,” he said. “It’s observed by people, many people hear about it, whether or not it is in fact a suicide, and the reality is that when it becomes visible it can create the sense of a higher frequency than it actually is. And so over the years, that has contributed to this perception. And part of that picture is that when non-Cornell-members die in the gorges, it’s sometimes perceived as a Cornell death when it may in fact not be.”
In the fall of 2008, a 1998 Cornell graduate was found dead in one of the gorges on campus. A woman unaffiliated with the university committed suicide from another bridge last summer.
It's unclear whether the university considers the rash of suicides as working out to about average over the last few suicide-free years, or an indication that something is systemically wrong at Cornell. Administrators and health officials were unavailable for interviews Monday as they spent the day planning ways to serve students, faculty and staff in the aftermath of the recent deaths, Moss said.
They've begun seeking the advice of experts at Weill Cornell Medical College and other institutions. Madelyn Gould, an expert on youth suicide and a professor of clinical epidemiology at Columbia University's College of Physicians and Surgeons, said Monday that she would be consulting with Cornell officials on how to prevent what she called the "cluster" of suicides from growing.
All the university can do now is to seek to comfort students and try to prevent the number of recent suicides from growing any bigger, said Rammy Salem, a senior who is president of the undergraduate Student Assembly. “We want to look away from valorizing or glamorizing the deaths,” he said. Suicide “presents itself as a viable option as a way to deal with your troubles or attract attention” to some students, but he and other student leaders want to make sure their classmates don’t see it that way.
So too does Skorton, the university’s president. “Your well being is the foundation on which your success is built. You are not alone,” he wrote in an e-mail message that is being reprinted this week in a full-page advertisement in the Cornell Daily Sun. “If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength."