July 16, 2010

Ithaca residents show support for temporary bridge fences

Members of the Ithaca community who spoke at a meeting of Ithaca's Common Council July 14 overwhelmingly favor keeping temporary fences on gorge bridges to help prevent suicides.

From prominent local figures to average citizens, virtually all who expressed an opinion during the open session supported Cornell's request to install and keep less-obtrusive fences on the East Hill bridges until the university and the city find an acceptable long-term solution.

Council held the special meeting for the community to hear presentations from a working group consisting of representatives from Cornell and the city that has been discussing improved temporary barriers and the efficacy of using barriers. The university installed temporary chain-link fences this past spring with an emergency declaration from Mayor Carolyn Peterson in response to a cluster of suicides during the 2009-10 academic year, three of which involved students jumping from bridges within a month.

The council will decide at its Aug. 4 regular meeting whether to grant a further extension of the emergency measure enabling Cornell to install alternative temporary barriers. The council's planning and economic development committee is likely to consider the plan at its July 21 meeting.

The open meeting also gave council and community members the opportunity to ask questions and make comments. One community member said she had planned to commit suicide from an East Hill bridge several years ago, but wasn't able to drive to the bridge when the impulse came. "I am definitely for the barriers on the bridges, because … that's where I would have gone," she said.

Others who spoke included Rob Mackenzie, president and chief executive officer of Cayuga Medical Center, and both the current and the former directors of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Tompkins County.

Many of the comments and questions centered on whether a person who plans to commit suicide from a bridge would find some other way if the fences stayed in place. Eric Caine '69, John Romano Professor and Chair of the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, said that research has indicated over and over that means restriction -- or reducing access to a suicide method -- does save lives, because if deterred from their attempt at that site at a particular time, these individuals most often do not commit suicide in other ways or in other places.

"In the heat of the moment, people think about doing something, but when the heat passes, they stop … and often go on to lead full lives," said Caine, one of three internationally recognized experts in suicide prevention who wrote a recent report commissioned by Cornell recommending that the temporary bridge barriers on East Hill stay up.

Caine pointed out that Cornell has long been in the vanguard of university student mental health. Its programs include a variety of educational strategies for faculty, staff and students helping them to "notice and respond" to people in distress; a system of support through a network of programs and services; a series of leadership messages talking about Cornell as a "caring community"; student leadership, outreach and peer support; review of policies to support students in distress; clinical services including depression screening during all medical visits; and 24-hour crisis services. The university plans to expand counseling, outreach and education in the fall, said Susan H. Murphy, Cornell's vice president for student and academic services.

Only one council member at the meeting -- Joel Zumoff, D-3rd -- questioned the value of fencing, largely based on expense. Cornell is paying the full cost of installation and eventual removal of the temporary fencing. "One doesn't place a price on people's lives, but economics does play a role both for the city and for Cornell," Zumoff said.

Zumoff also questioned whether the fences would scare away prospective students and their parents. Murphy responded that although parents and others had expressed both positive and negative reactions to the fences, Cornell's incoming class for the fall semester is overenrolled.

The session opened with a presentation by David Cutter, university landscape architect, who described the proposal to replace the current fences with other, more aesthetic, temporary barriers that are non-reflective, are less flexible and therefore harder to climb, and that can be modified to include viewing portals.

Murphy followed with a presentation outlining the university's comprehensive mental health programs, its response to the suicide contagion, why the safety of the bridges and the contagion is a community problem -- about half of the bridge suicides in the past 21 years did not involve Cornell students-- and she discussed Cornell's proposal for a less obtrusive temporary fencing.

"We believe we share this issue, we can share its solution and we can share the benefits of a safer community," she said.