Almost five months after the cluster of gorge-related suicides rocked campus, administrators continued a community-wide discussion about means restriction — using physical impediments to prevent suicide — at a pair of open forums Tuesday. University Architect Gilbert Delgado, University Planner Mina Amundsen, and head designer for the permanent barriers project, Nader Tehrani of Office dA, spoke about what the community can expect for the bridges in the coming months.Roughly 20 members of the Cornell community attended, including 15 architecture students invited by the Student Assembly. An identical session was held later Tuesday afternoon at the Holiday Inn on Cayuga Street in downtown Ithaca, targeting the larger Ithaca community.The forum is part of University efforts to publicize and promote their plans for suicide prevention, which developed more concretely over the summer through discussions with the City of Ithaca and consultations with experts in the field of prevention.University Seeks Outside HelpImmediately following the most recent of the suicides in Fall Creek Gorge last spring, the University was in contact with suicide experts from other institutions and within a few weeks, three were selected to consult on Cornell’s situation, said Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives for the University.The experts, who issued a report available on the University’s “Caring Community” website, were: Annette L. Beautrais, Ph.D., a professor at the Yale University School of Medicine, who has extensive experience in the role of means restriction in suicide prevention; Madelyn Gould, Ph.D., a professor of psychiatry and public health at Columbia University specializing in suicide contagion and clusters; and Dr. Eric Caine ’69, chair of the department of psychiatry at University of Rochester Medical Center and an expert in “comprehensive approaches to suicide prevention,” according to Marchell.“The reason for reaching out and seeking guidance from these experts is that the [set of] circumstances that we faced in terms of the health and safety of our students was unique,” Marchell said. “This was a crisis that was unprecedented, and we needed the advice of people that had studied these types of situations and had worked through them before.”Caine said he and the other two consultants spent a total of five days on the consulting process — two days on the ground in Ithaca, two cumulative days spread out over a series of weeks, and one more day in Ithaca for the Ithaca Common Council meeting on Aug. 4. At that where council members voted to allow the installation of black temporary barriers currently on the bridges while the University consulted with designers for permanent barriers for means restriction. Caine said he was paid $2,500 a day, for a total of five days of work.Of the three experts, Caine had the most experience with the specific conditions and challenges the Ithaca environment poses to the issues of suicide prevention and means restriction, having graduated from Cornell in 1969 and having lived in upstate New York in the late 1970s.Caine compared his consultation with the University to consultations between departments in hospitals“When you boil it down, the whole idea is, ‘Help me. Help me think about a problem I’m facing in taking care of someone,’” Caine said.Are Barriers an Effective Method of Means Restriction?According to Caine, and as was stated in the report, the lack of barriers on bridges represented a “hole” in University initiatives for suicide prevention, given the “iconic status” of the bridges and gorges that would not have been noticed if it were not for last semester’s tragedies.“You really have a hard time preventing suicide at the edge of a cliff,” Caine said. “When people get to that point they are typically alone … how do you reach them when they’re not in crisis and how do you prevent that crisis from coming to pass? … Barriers are one way.”He continued, “It takes an outsider to say, ‘If you don’t do something, it’s going to happen again.’”Caine also emphasized the importance of barriers for preventing “ambivalent” suicide attempts. The consultants, he said, attempted to dispel perceptions of, “Well, if they can’t do it here, they’ll do it somewhere else and ‘barriers don’t work.’”Caine reiterated this point with an anecdote from the Common Council meeting in early August.“One person in particular was very graphic about her own thoughts about jumping,” Caine said. “She eventually did jump — rather impulsively — and ended up surviving … [but] clearly there were certain ‘common sense’ [ideas about prevention] we needed to address because common sense isn’t always true,” he said.An important question the consultants were faced with, Caine said, was, “What’s different about Ithaca?”“It isn’t one single iconic bridge or site,” Caine said. “In some ways what we were challenged with as consultants is that there is no precedent for something like Ithaca.”Despite the “iconic” nature of Ithaca’s bridges, Caine reiterated that Cornell and Ithaca are “right on level with the rest of the region” in terms of historic suicide rates.The issue of notoriety, however, still remains, according to Caine.“This isn’t something that’s going to go away,” he said. “There really is a reputation, no matter how undeserved.”Moving Forward: Future Outlook for Prevention InitiativesCaine emphasized the importance of community input as the University moves forward with means restriction and other methods of suicide prevention.“This has to be a community process,” Caine said. “I mean the collective community of Ithaca and Cornell — the students and the faculty and the staff and everybody in the region. This really has to be a thoughtful way of bringing everyone together and encouraging people to work together for a solution.”According to Caine, Nader Tehrani understands the importance of community input as Cornell moves forward with measures for means restriction.“Tehrani gets it,” he said. “This is a community process … [and] good architects know their communities.”Caine continued, addressing community concern over the aesthetics of the bridges, “A barrier doesn’t have to be a fence. Architects have a lot of ways of thinking.”The objective of the means restriction forum Tuesday, according to Delgado, was “to develop an effective and artful design that minimizes impact to the spectacular views of the surrounding natural areas.”“We would consider [this project] to be successful if we are able to make barriers physically and psychologically invisible,” Tehrani said.One idea presented was a set of illuminated barriers with lights that move as people cross the bridges.“Right now [the project is in] the information gathering phase,” Amundsen said. “[The architects] are learning as much as they can and then they will come up with ideas to approach this … We only hired them to do a study and that budget is very tight … [The budget for the barriers] is to be determined, dependent on the outcome of the study.”Delgado outlined the tentative schedule for the permanent barriers as follows: nine months would be allotted for site analysis, at which point Cornell and the City of Ithaca would review the results; three preliminary schematics would be produced for each of the three bridge types — pedestrian, vehicular, and stone arch; and finally, Cornell and the City would review these designs and set the final project parameters. This process must be completed by May 20, 2011, the deadline set by the Common Council for approval of the permanent barriers.“We have a very tight timeline, so [the preliminary schematics] are probably due by the end of the year … at that point, we will open up for feedback and we will then make a decision on which one to pursue,” Amundsen said.Outside of means restriction, new University mental health initiatives are aimed at preventing problems before they occur. A pilot program aimed at training students to recognize when their friends and classmates may be in distress has been launched in an introductory course in the College of Engineering, according to Tim Marchell. Peer Support Group discussions — where new students and upperclassmen can discuss “tools to stay on track and reach your potential,” according to the University — will be held in the coming weeks, the first taking place today.Caine praised the University on its mental health programs, which he called a “state-of-the-art effort.”Cornell’s “multi-layered approach” to suicide prevention allowed the University “to act in a far more decisive way than many institutions could have” when last Spring’s slew of tragedies gripped the community, Caine said. “I think they’re making the right effort.”
Andrew Hu contributed reporting to this article.
Original Author: Dani Neuharth-Keusch