Cornell recently experienced its sixth student suicide in as many months. The two most recent deaths occurred when students threw themselves into the gorges that cut through its campus in Ithaca, NY. Can we blame the scenery for the deaths?
Maybe. Cornell has battled a "suicide school" reputation before—in 1994, administrators dismissed it as a "myth" and the New York Times wrote that the gorges' "dramatic, almost theatrical quality" may attract "special attention when a death occurs." One suicide per month is above average, but applying statistics to this situation is faulty, particularly since this year's suicides are Cornell's first since 2005. Officials point out that private self-destruction happens everywhere, but gets less attention.
But there is evidence that the availability of impulsive suicide methods increases the likelihood of successful attempts. In 2008, Scott Anderson wrote about jumping suicides for the New York Times Magazine, and used two stories to make his point: First, "the British coal-gas story." In the late 1950s, "sticking one's head in the oven" was Great Britain's most frequent suicide method, accounting for nearly half of the nation's suicides. In the 1970s, an aggressive campaign to reduce pollution virtually eliminated coal gas use. At the same time, the suicide rate depleted by one third, and stayed there. The conclusion: Access to impulsive suicide methods is directly related to suicide rates. "The execution chamber in everyone's kitchen" apparently made a difference.
Anderson's second story is about a gorge in Washington, D.C. Two bridges cross it, one a notorious suicide spot, the other not. He writes,
After three people leapt from the Ellington in a single 10-day period in 1985, a consortium of civic groups lobbied for a suicide barrier to be erected on the span. Opponents to the plan, which included the National Trust for Historic Preservation, countered with the same argument that is made whenever a suicide barrier on a bridge or landmark building is proposed: that such barriers don't really work, that those intent on killing themselves will merely go elsewhere. In the Ellington's case, opponents had the added ammunition of pointing to the equally lethal Taft standing just yards away: if a barrier were placed on the Ellington, it was not at all hard to see exactly where thwarted jumpers would head.
Except the opponents were wrong. A study conducted five years after the Ellington barrier went up showed that while suicides at the Ellington were eliminated completely, the rate at the Taft barely changed, inching up from 1.7 to 2 deaths per year. What's more, over the same five-year span, the total number of jumping suicides in Washington had decreased by 50 percent, or the precise percentage the Ellington once accounted for.
Cornell's renewed suicide prevention efforts include a massive mental health campaign targeting students as well as the staff, faculty, and families who talk to them; avoiding "valorizing" recent deaths; and stationing guards on all bridges that cross gorges. All three strategies are wise. Don't underestimate the power of the third one. [USAToday] [NYTMag] [Image via AP]