July 8, 2010

CU addresses questions about temporary bridge barriers

This FAQ is a follow-up to the June 17 Cornell Chronicle story on a consultants' report with recommendations on suicide prevention and bridge safety. The experts were engaged by the university in the wake of several student suicides in the past year.

What were the expert consultants asked to do, and what did their report say?

The university asked three leaders in the field of suicide prevention to visit Ithaca, consult with campus and community members, provide education about current research and best practices, assess the challenges we face, and provide recommendations on how the university and the city should proceed to address these challenges.

They recommended using a multifaceted approach to suicide prevention and noted that Cornell has been using such an approach. However, the consultants observed that in hindsight, one "hole" in the approach was not having means restrictions on the bridges. A growing body of research demonstrates that restricting access to well-recognized, accessible jumping sites has a substantial probability of reducing deaths by this means, and perhaps suicide rates overall.

The consultants recommended maintaining adequate temporary barriers until permanent means restriction could be planned and installed on or under bridges.

While the consultants did not recommend any particular permanent solutions for the bridges, the temporary barriers will give sufficient time for further community input and for designers to study and design possible alternatives that would provide effective means restriction "in a fashion that is respectful of the glorious beauty of the settings."

The consultants' report is available at http://caringcommunity.cornell.edu.

Why were bridge barriers put up in March, and why weren't other means restrictions considered at the time?

The university's first responsibility in March was to stop what was and is still feared to be an ongoing suicide contagion. The chain-link fences that are on the bridges now were the most effective method of means restriction that could be put up quickly -- in a matter of days.

These fences, while necessary in the immediate wake of the deaths last winter, are aesthetically unacceptable to the Cornell and Ithaca communities, as well as the Cornell administration. The university has identified less intrusive temporary fencing that could provide effective means restriction while options for permanent means restriction methods that are appropriate to each bridge are explored and designed. There are many possibilities for effective means restriction on bridges, such as substructures and nets, modifications to remove climbing footholds from railings, changing and raising railing profiles and top treatment, landscaping, lighting and using see-through materials. Designers will have free rein to be creative and innovative.

In addition, a committee is being formed to explore options for installing emergency telephones near bridges as a supplement to means restriction.

Cornell also has stepped up its already concerted outreach to vulnerable members of its community and expanded other related programming addressing student mental health and safety.

Have bridge barriers been recommended in the past in Ithaca?

Yes, bridge barriers, among other kinds of means restriction, have been recommended by some members of the Ithaca and Cornell communities a number of times in the past. However, a substantial body of research establishing the effectiveness of means restriction to prevent suicide at jumping locations has become available only in recent years.

Are the recent incidences of suicides from bridges different from past incidences, when barriers were not recommended?

Two things are different at this time. The first is that we experienced a number of suicides within a short space of time, creating what researchers call a "suicide cluster," whereby the notoriety of incidences results in an imitative or contagion effect, increasing the risk of further suicides. This effect is particularly noted among suicides of young people.

The second difference compounds the first: the rise of the Internet and other social media means that news is spread quickly and can be accessed and replayed many times over. Local, national and international media attention was intensely focused on the recent bridge suicides, dramatically enhancing the iconic nature of Ithaca's multiple jumping sites. Vulnerable individuals, especially young people, may be particularly drawn to public places that have become known as suicide sites.

The rise or persistence of a place as an iconic suicide magnet and the phenomenon of suicide contagion both seem to be enhanced by the degree and length of the media attention one or more suicides receives.

How many suicides have occurred from the bridges in question?

Since 1990, there have been 29 known and probable suicidal jumps from city-owned and Cornell-owned bridges and their adjacent gorge edges on East Hill in Ithaca. Of the 29 suicidal jumps, two were nonfatal but nonetheless caused very serious injuries.

Why are we hearing so much now about means restrictions on bridges?

In recent years, a number of scientific investigations and studies on suicide prevention, means restriction to prevent suicide by jumping, and the efficacy of means restriction have confirmed the conclusions of a small number of earlier studies, showing that means restriction can be effective. Suicide by jumping is often an impulsive act with a short (or no) planning period. The imposition of an obstacle often interrupts or slows the action long enough for the impulse to pass. People who are thwarted from jumping usually do not substitute another means of suicide.

A long-term follow-up study of people who had been thwarted from committing suicide by jumping from San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge found that more than 90 percent did not later die by suicide. This 90 percent were still alive or had died from natural causes.

Why are the city and Cornell focusing on temporary barriers rather than permanent solutions?

Several suicides clustered in a close proximity of time and location, such as what Cornell experienced in late winter, are known to cause an "imitation" effect on vulnerable members of the community, elevating their risk of suicide. No one knows for sure how long the elevated risk can last, but the mental health professionals Cornell consulted said that it is very likely to continue for the foreseeable future and strongly recommended that temporary barriers remain in place while permanent means restriction measures are explored and designed.

A City of Ithaca-Cornell Bridge Safety Committee has been discussing keeping up temporary barriers with an alternative (and improved) appearance for consideration by the Ithaca Common Council.

Also, an Architect Selection Committee, with representation from Cornell and the city of Ithaca, is conducting a search for architectural/engineering designers who can help develop innovative, effective and environmentally sensitive design options for long-term means restrictions on or under the bridges.

Has there been a consideration of installing emergency phones on or near the bridges, and is that a sufficient alternative solution?

The university is examining the installation of emergency phones as a supplement to means restriction on bridges. In this we are guided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the leading national network of crisis and suicide prevention hotlines. The Lifeline Steering Committee's position is that the use of means restriction is the most effective way of preventing bridge suicides and that emergency phones or signs promoting awareness of suicide prevention hotlines or services should be only a supplement to means restriction on bridges.

Why is the issue of suicide prevention and means restriction on bridges on or near the Cornell campus a community issue?

Cornell and Ithaca are united in our desire to prevent suicide. Of the 29 suicidal jumps from bridges and adjacent gorge edges on East Hill in the last 20 years, 14 were by Cornell students, 11 were by other members of the Ithaca community and four were by people from out of the area. Several of the bridges of concern are owned by the city of Ithaca, and all the bridges are accessible to the general public.

Will the city or taxpayers have to pay anything for the construction or removal of the current or new temporary barriers?

The current barriers -- both their construction and future removal -- will be paid for entirely by Cornell. Cornell is proposing to replace them at its own expense with temporary barriers that will be better looking and less intrusive than the current chain-link fencing, while options for permanent means restriction can be discussed and designed.

What specific studies confirm the efficacy of bridge barriers and other means restrictions on bridges to prevent suicides?

A list of scientific studies is included on the university's Caring Community website (http://caringcommunity.cornell.edu/). The list is part of the consultants' extended report.

Is there potentially a greater risk of suicides occurring from one of the bridges after the barriers have come down?

Yes, there are studies of situations in which the overall rate of suicides in a given area decreased over a sustained period of time when means restrictions on a known suicide jumping site were in effect, only to have the rate rise again once the means restrictions were abandoned, and decrease again when means restriction was reinstituted.

Is the fencing an example of the university restricting access on campus to natural areas and view sheds by the community?

No. The university allows and promotes community access to most natural areas on campus, many of which have beautiful view sheds.