November 22, 2010

Fences Save

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After seeing the “Ithaca is Fences” stickers all semester, I came upon one a few weeks ago on the Collegetown Bridge that made me absolutely furious. I don’t remember its exact phrasing — since, honestly, I ripped up the vile piece of hatred as soon as I tore it from the railing — but the message was this: The harm that the fences cause the Cornell community is “not worth saving the life of one person so bent on throwing it all away.”I could not believe anyone in our community could be so cruel.Now, let me explain briefly why this issue cuts me so deeply. On March 12, I lost one of the best friends I’ve had in my entire life. Matt Zika ’11 was a brilliant, funny, warm, caring person. We met in the Fall of 2007 working together at RPCC dining, and eventually worked our way up to co-managers. But more than that, he was everything from my confidant to my study buddy to my wingman. His last Halloween, he was the Carlton to my Fresh Prince. But most importantly, he was my big brother. We had conversations about life and death and our dreams (literal and metaphorical), and everything else that we only ever feel comfortable talking about with friends so close that we call them family. When our friend Clayton DeFisher ’11 died on New Year’s, we stayed up all night talking and comforting each other — he in Indiana, me in Pennsylvania. He got me through that night by showing me an entirely new way to cope with loss. On his way back to Ithaca, he drove over five hours out of his way just to come to my hometown and sleep over for a night, to make sure I was okay. Matt was one of those once-in-a-lifetime friends.I write all this to make a few points. First, it seems people like me — the people affected the most by the suicides — should be considered the most fit to determine whether or not the fences are painful reminders of the tragedies. After all, that seems to be the biggest argument against them. But I love the fences, and I haven’t talked to a single person who was as close with Matt as I was who isn’t also thankful for them. For me, and for anyone else who lost a friend to suicide, it does not take the sight of a fence to bring to mind last year’s suicides. There is not a day — not an hour — that goes by that the sadness, guilt, loneliness, regret and every other unavoidable emotion that comes with the loss of a close friend doesn’t overwhelm me. For the anti-fence camp to pretend that they’re protesting the fences on my benefit is insulting on so many levels.And second, to assert that Matt’s life was not worth saving because he “was so bent on throwing it away” is the most disgusting thing I have ever heard. Yes, he was depressed, and he made a terrible decision, but in no way does that diminish the worth of his life. He was an incredible person, and I could fill up this entire newspaper with reasons why. I would climb a barbed wire fence to class every single day if it meant that Matt would still be alive; I sure do not mind walking by those black bars when I cross a bridge. The chance that the fences could save just one person’s life is enough for me to be pro-fence all the way.And that chance is bigger than most people realize. What the “Ithaca is Fences” people seem to ignore is the fact that studies prove that putting up fences on bridges with high suicide rates significantly reduces the number of suicides — total suicides — in that area. It doesn’t take long to find evidence to prove this. Two doctors writing for the American Journal of Psychiatry published an article featuring a study of jumping suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge, which has the highest suicide rate of any place on Earth. They found that of the 515 people who were prevented from jumping off the bridge by rescue crews, only six percent ended up ever committing suicide. In other words, out of every 20 people who came close to ending their own lives, but didn’t because of restricted means, 19 decided never to go through with it later. Furthermore, suicides in Washington, D.C., decreased after a barrier was constructed on the Duke Ellington Memorial Bridge in 1985. The same thing happened when barriers were built on the Augusta River Bridge in Maine (1983), the Muenster Terrace in Bern, Switzerland (1998) and the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England (1998). These do not only take into account jumpers, but total suicide rates. The evidence is clear that restricting the means to ending one’s life by jumping has a significant impact on lowering the number of suicides in the area. So yes, I love the fences. If a sticker I saw today on the Collegetown Bridge is to be believed, “The fences saved someone’s life over the summer.” The sight of a fence could never, ever be as painful as reading ignorant and hate-filled words on a bridge telling suicidal people that they deserve to die.The sight of a fence could never be as painful as the sight of your best friend’s tombstone.I urge anyone who feels hopeless, alone, depressed or suicidal to please, please seek help. My hope is that anyone who feels this way will utilize CAPS, EARS or any of the other mental health services on campus. Deirdre Mulligan is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. She may be reached at drm234@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Deirdre Mulligan