At least four people have been stopped from climbing over the campus fences erected to stop suicides since the University installed the barriers in 2010. While the intentions of the individuals are not known, some administrators said the barriers gave emergency responders time to intervene.
After the deaths of six students by suicide during the 2009-10 academic year — including three by jumping off bridges during the spring of 2010 — the University installed fences on seven bridges on campus in an effort to prevent further suicides.
Since then, there have been at least two instances — one involving a community member and one involving a student — when the barriers have allowed police to respond, according to Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives for Gannett Health Services.
“These were both examples of how the barriers that were in place slowed the person down and enabled bystanders to intervene effectively and summon emergency personnel,” Marchell said.
Two of the incidents took place on the Thurston Avenue bridge and two occurred on the Stewart Avenue Bridge, according to Kathy Zoner, chief of the Cornell University Police Department. Cornell Police intervened in three of the incidents, while a private citizen intervened after seeing someone on the wrong side of the fence in the fourth, Zoner said.
“One of our students saw someone on the other side of the fence and had an extensive conversation [with him or her],” she said.
Zoner added that there may have been other incidents when private citizens or members of the Ithaca Police Department intervened of which she is unaware.
She also stressed that although the four individuals were discovered climbing on the barriers or standing on the other side of the barriers, this does not necessarily mean that they had suicidal intentions.
“All I can say is they were on the wrong side of the fence, or [that] they were trying to go over the fence,” she said.
However, Zoner said that the barriers have likely helped save lives since they were installed.
“It slowed them down to the point where they had to think about what they were headed towards maybe doing and … make a decision that wasn’t as impulsive,” she said.
The high number of bridge-related suicides at Cornell make the barriers a particularly important method of means restriction, according to Marchell.
“The studies that have been done on means restriction on bridges have consistently shown that where they’re employed, the suicides are either eliminated or significantly reduced,” Marchell said. “With half of the suicides among Cornell students in the past two decades involving jumps from the bridges, it was vital that we take these steps.”
Since the spring of 2010, the University has recorded one suicide that occurred — the death of Kenneth Whelan grad in November. Whelan’s death was a suicide, according to Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services for Gannett.
Despite noting that there have been no suicides involving jumping from the bridges since the fences were installed, Eells said that it is too early to conclude that the barriers have been effective.
“You need at least a decade, maybe two,” he said. “Anecdotally, no one has jumped from the bridges since the [fences] have been up.”
Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations at Gannett, echoed Eells’ sentiments.
“We have to be really cautious when we talk about interpreting suicide data over a short period of time,” Dittman said. “If you look at the three plus years prior to the suicide crisis, we had no suicides; then we had one terrible year. Now, to look at these two years with only one confirmed suicide and ask, ‘Is that directly attributable to what we’ve done?’ It’s very hard to say. To understand epidemiology, rates and trends, we need to take the long view.”
The fences will be replaced this summer with permanent nets, most of which will be under the bridges, The Sun reported in January.
Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for student and academic services, said she considers the city’s approval of the plan to install nets “really extraordinary” progress.
“It’s [after] a 40-year conversation that we finally have an action plan,” Murphy said. “The installation of the nets on the bridges as a form of means restriction is absolutely cutting-edge.”
Eells said that the nets are also representative of the University’s overall emphasis on means restriction over the last two years.
“Our consultants said, ‘That’s the piece that’s missing. If you look at other national comprehensive models around suicide prevention, the one thing that you’re not doing that they all suggest is means restriction,’” Eells said.