The weather in Ithaca — grey, overcast skies that gave way to scattered rain showers — was an apt indicator of the weary mood on campus over the weekend.
As the Cornell community mourned the death of a third student in less than a month, signs of a gloomy campus atmosphere abounded, from Facebook groups calling for “No More Cornell Suicides,” to security personnel patrolling bridges around campus.
Some people, trying to provide disheartened students with a little cheer, posted notes on bridge railings that said “Smile :)” and “Your prelim grade isn’t as bad as being mauled by a bear.” From dormitories to libraries, conversations across campus revolved around the tragic events that have shocked the Cornell community.
In response to the recent string of gorge-related deaths — which only exacerbated the pain for a campus community already burdened by an unusually high number of student deaths this academic year — the University launched an aggressive mental health campaign Saturday. It involved knocking on the door of every dorm room, stationing staff at bridges and widely publicizing the University’s counseling services. Student leaders also announced plans for events this week aimed at combating the somber mood on campus.
Keeping Watch on the Gorges
“While we know that our gorges are beautiful features of our campus, they can be scary places at times like this,” Vice President for Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73 said in a video posted on a new website –– caringcommunity.cornell.edu –– that the University created to help students find help for mental health issues they have on campus.
Cornell University Police Department officers, EMS workers and employees of private security companies have been posted on all bridges around campus since Friday afternoon. There will be security on the bridges until at least Monday at 10:30 p.m. when Cornell administrations will reevaluate the situation, Murphy told The Sun.
An employee from Chestnut Street Security, Inc., a private security company used by many of Cornell’s fraternities for open parties, said that this was the “first time she had ever done a job like this,” and that she was stationed at a bridge in order “to be a presence.”
Deputy University Spokesperson Simeon Moss ’73 said that the personnel on the bridges are there to tell people to move along or to call for help if there is a problem. Many of the employees stationed at campus bridges said that they had received a lot of positive feedback and expressions of gratitude from passersby.
The University’s widespread response comes as rescuers continued efforts into Sunday to recover the body of Matthew Zika ’11, who the University said died Friday near the suspension bridge over Fall Creek Gorge. On Thursday, emergency crews recovered the body of William Sinclair ’12 from Fall Creek Gorge under the Thurston Avenue Bridge. On Feb. 17, rescue workers recovered the body of Bradley Ginsburg ’13 from the same area.
A Shift in Tone
In light of the most recent death, the University’s messages to the community have struck a much more personal and urgent tone than previous announcements of student deaths.
“Your well being is the foundation on which your success is built. You are not alone,” Skorton said in an e-mail Friday. “Your friends, your family, your teachers, your colleagues, and an array of counselors and advisors are ready to listen and help you through whatever you are facing. If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength.”
“The cumulative effect of this loss of life is palpable in our community,” Murphy said in her video message. “We know we need to be doing more than what we regularly do, and we have that underway.”
Vice President for Univeristy Communications Tommy Bruce was even more explicit in his message to the community Sunday night.
“Suicide is not a solution. It can be prevented,” he stated. “If you are considering suicide, please understand: the psychological pain you feel now is not permanent. Counseling is effective.”
Counseling and Mental Health Resources Expanded
In addition to the standard array of counseling services the University offers, Gannett opened its Counseling and Psychological Services program on Saturday and Sunday when they usually remain closed.
Sharon Dittman, associate director for health promotion and community relations, said Sunday night that some students took advantage of those services over the weekend but noted that not all the appointment slots were filled.
She also said that demand for after-hour counseling services had not significantly exceeded its usual level.
“Cornell is fortunate to have a number of excellent resources ... that work together to make this a caring community,” Murphy said in her message. “But even those resources, together with our faculty and student staff, have been strained as all of us have been coping with the loss of life that we have experienced as a community.”
Dittman said that Gannett’s resources have been somewhat strained by the recent deaths because the health center was already in the midst of its busiest time of the semester for counseling services.
Administrators Coordinate Response With Student Leaders
In addition to electronic communications, members of the administration met with leaders of student groups Saturday afternoon to hash out a coordinated response to the recent events.
Student group leaders present at Saturday’s meeting committed to helping out.
Cornell Minds Matter said it plans to organize workshops in individual residence halls to distribute information about how to notice symptoms of depression and respond to them.
In conjuction with Cornell Minds Matter, EARS, which offers peer counseling, will be open for extended hours. They encouraged students to either call or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org to schedule a walk-in visit, according to Alice Green, assistant dean of Students for Students Support and EARS faculty advisor.
One such resolution that is under debate would urge the administration to make a mandatory training session during freshman orientation to discuss a wide-array of mental health issues that students should prepare for on campus, including work-related pressures, alcohol consumption and learning how to recognize symptoms of depression.
Several student groups are currently planning an event on Ho Plaza, Wednesday from 4:30 to 6 p.m., that would feature, music, food, speakers and “a stress wall” and would serve as a way to unite the campus and release some anxiety and stress, according to Salem. Plans have not yet been finalized, however.
Univ. to Students: Keep Academics ‘In Proper Perspective’
At the Saturday meeting, the biggest concern expressed was determining how to effectively manage students’ work-related stress heading into a busy final week of classes before spring break.
Provost Kent Fuchs and Dean of the University Faculty William Fry sent out a letter on Saturday to faculty members, asking professors to speak to students during classes about “keeping their academics in proper perspective,” according to Murphy.
“Express to your students that you care not only about their academic performance, but also about them personally,” Fuchs and Fry said in the letter, which was posted on the University’s website. “Furthermore, we ask you to consider making adjustments to the exam schedules of students who appear to be under unusual duress.”
Murphy added that the administration planned to hold a meeting Sunday with the “associate and academic deans” to talk about getting the message out that students can speak to their college’s advisors if they are having trouble managing their work or believe that a particular professor is being especially unfair about a deadline.
She said that students’ college advisors may speak to a professor when such intervention is warranted.
The University also set up tables Sunday at various locations across campus to remind students that there is a “presence of concerned adults that are there for the students,” according to Murphy.
The administration planned to circulate information on how to recognize symptoms of depression and seek out psychological counseling. They also sought to remind students about the importance of speaking to their college’s advisors if they are having difficulty with school.
Some professors, who taught Zika and Sinclair this semester, opted to postpone assignments and exams that had been planned for the upcoming week. Prof. Robert Thorne, physics, who taught Sinclair in Physics III: Oscillations, Waves and Quantum Physics, sent an e-mail to his class that “all deadlines for completing course work are suspended until further notice” as students take time “to process these events.” Prof. Mark Lewis, operations research and industrial design, who taught Zika in Introductory Engineering Stochastic Processes I, postponed a prelim that was scheduled for this week to after Spring Break.
The University urged individuals to contact Gannett Health Services (607-255-5155) if they have concerns about themselves, a friend or another member of the community.