Wednesday, the Ithaca Common Council will hold a special meeting to vote on final approval of the means restriction Cornell has recommended for the three bridges near campus owned by the city. It is imperative that the Council votes yes.
Cornell’s proposal is to equip six of the gorge bridges on campus with stainless steel tensile mesh net, resting 15 feet below the bridges and extending about 15 feet out. (The netting is perhaps unfortunately named, because it much more resembles a steel grate than a circus net. It would not be fun to fall into, but its main purpose was never to be comfortable.)
This plan is not meant to be a silver bullet; suicide is too big a problem for just one solution. According to Greg Eells, Director of Counseling and Psychological Services for Gannett, ten to 15 percent of college students regularly contemplate suicide and one to two percent actually attempt it. At a school of 21,833 students, the numbers can be daunting. However, means restriction — the attempt to reduce access to the means of committing suicide — has been shown to be effective.
Studies from Washington, D.C. to New Zealand show that means restriction on bridges can reduce or eliminate the number of suicides at a specific location. Additionally, most research shows that the restrictions did not lead to increased suicide attempts at other locales, though there are exceptions. Many suicide victims are method specific: they envision ending their lives in a specific way and do not try other techniques when that method is out of reach. Furthermore, if some do attempt another form of suicide, it may be much less lethal. While jumping kills upwards of 90 percent of its victims, more than 80 percent of those who overdose on medication survive.
Cornell’s bridges have become iconic locations, as about 50 percent of Cornell’s suicides have occured on them. Anything that even marginally reduces the likelihood of jumping can drastically save lives.
With this reality in mind, the Cornell bridges were encased in fences in March 2010, obstructing the views of the gorges and serving as a constant reminder of the cluster of tragedies that occurred earlier that year. The fences were meant as a temporary measure, only to be up as long as the “State of Emergency” declared by Mayor Carolyn Peterson persisted. Yet on Aug. 4, 2010, the state of emergency was extended at Cornell’s request, allowing the University to design permanent means restriction barriers to replace the fences.
This is not the first time Cornell has expanded the means restrictions on the bridges, but it will hopefully be the last. In 1977, the University added the bars to the suspension bridge following a series of suicides. In 1987, Cornell heightened the railing on the Stone Arch Bridge by two feet. In 2007, the Thurston Avenue Bridge railing was raised and curved to make jumping more difficult. However, none of these enhancements have been as significant a deterrent as the steel nets will be.
Of course, if the nets’ effectiveness were the Common Council’s only concern, they would have been erected a while ago. Council members have expressed worries ranging from the liability of installing nets to the aesthetics of the nearly invisible design. One Alderperson even went so far as to accuse the University of trying to “overprotect” its students, as if yearly suicides are not something Cornell should try by any means to stop.
Since the original proposal, the Council has twisted Cornell’s arm until we agreed to pay for all construction, training, maintenance and insurance costs yet transfer ownership and control of the netting to the City. Cornell has made every attempt to get the nets installed as quickly as possible but has met delay after delay. This intransigence is even more appalling given that eight of the 26 jumpers in the last two decades have been non-student Ithaca residents. Wednesday, in a special session, the Common Council can finally set the project in motion. We have waited long enough; it is time to get it right.
Alex Bores is the undergraduate student-elected trustee and a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at email@example.com. Trustee Viewpoint appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.