June 17, 2010

Experts to Cornell: Maintain temporary bridge barriers for now, promote 'caring and safety' to deter suicide

A consultants' report on suicide prevention emphasizes caring and safety, including the need for temporary physical bridge barriers, as hallmarks of Cornell's ongoing strategy to prevent future suicides and support the mental health of everyone on campus.

This fall, Cornell will continue moving forward on several fronts to address the current crisis, including expanding its counseling resources, introducing new educational initiatives and enhancing its already robust efforts to identify and support students in distress. The university also acknowledges that circumstances have compelled Cornell to provide bridge safety to save lives.

Released June 14, the consultants' report was commissioned in response to a cluster of six Cornell student suicides between October 2009 and March 2010, three of which involved students jumping to their deaths into gorges. The report was written by three internationally recognized experts in suicide prevention who were engaged by the university for professional advice: Annette Beautrais, senior research scientist at Yale University School of Medicine; Madelyn Gould, professor of psychiatry and public health at Columbia University; and Eric Caine '69, John Romano Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center.

Cornell and Ithaca face a unique challenge on the subject of suicide, the consultants said, due to the public nature of where some suicides occur -- from multiple bridges over gorges. This contributes to an "iconic status" of suicide sites, despite the fact that the rate of suicide over time at Cornell has been consistent with national higher education data.

While acknowledging that suicide prevention is a "young science," the consultants stressed that available scientific data suggest "most individuals who jump from iconic sites are ambivalent, act impulsively, choose a specific site." If deterred from their attempt at that site at a particular time, these individuals most often do not later die by suicide.

Restricting access to jumping sites, therefore, has a "substantial probability" of saving lives.

The report says it is "vital" that Cornell maintain the temporary physical barriers on bridges until permanent safety measures can be implemented -- an issue that has taken center stage on campus and in Ithaca. The City of Ithaca has granted an extension until Aug. 13 on the emergency chain-link bridge barriers, installed on six Cornell or city-owned bridges in March, to give a working group of Cornell staff and city officials time to develop more aesthetically acceptable interim barriers.

Ithaca's Common Council will decide at its Aug. 4 meeting whether to grant a further extension enabling alternative temporary barriers to be installed. The council's planning and economic development committee is likely to consider the plan at its July 21 meeting.

The consultants asserted that the public nature of deaths from bridges increases the likelihood that the "suicide cluster" will continue unabated in the absence of physical barriers. They stressed that the risk of suicide "contagion," fueled in part by widespread media coverage that arose over the past months, continues to be significant.

The report urges a "sustained, comprehensive approach" to promoting mental health and supporting those experiencing emotional difficulties, and emphasizes that preventing suicides in the gorges needs to be recognized as a communitywide issue, with Cornell and Ithaca "in this together."

"Physical barriers are only one part of our suicide prevention strategy," said Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives. "But the research literature is quite compelling that it is a critical component for us."

Temporary barriers will help address ongoing concerns about suicide contagion, said Susan Murphy, vice president for student and academic services, while allowing time for the university to consult with the community and local and national experts on appropriate long-term solutions.

"The beauty of our landscape is vital to the identity of Cornell and Ithaca," Murphy said. "I'm confident that we will find a way to balance our need to experience the natural beauty of the gorges with our concern for the safety of our most vulnerable students and community members."

The report can be accessed online at: http://caringcommunity.cornell.edu.