February 13, 2001

Suicide Rates at Cornell Not As High As Believed

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Dismissing the popular belief that stress and competition at Cornell lead a greater-than-average number of students to commit suicide, the Boston Globe published a survey last week revealing that Cornellians are actually less likely to take their own lives than students at colleges nationwide.

From 1990 to 2000, nine students killed themselves at Cornell, representing 5.7 student deaths per 100,000 per year, according to the article. These statistics put Cornell in the fourth position out of the eleven peer institutions the Globe ranked.

With eleven suicides in the same number of years, a student death rate of 10.2, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) far surpassed Harvard University (7.4 deaths per 100,000 per year) and Duke University (6.1 suicides per 100,000 per year). MIT’s suicide rate is also 53 percent greater than the national average among college students, which is 10 per 100,000 per year.

Although each suicide remains a personal tragedy, “the data that we have suggests that we have lower than average suicides; we have done relatively well,” said Dean John E. Hopcroft, College of Engineering.

With an undergraduate rate of 7.4 students deaths per 100,000 per year (according to the survey data), over the last two years, the engineering college is on the high end of the University’s suicide rate. The college, which enrolls 2,700 undergraduate students each year, still had two voluntary undergraduate deaths in the last ten years.

To increase suicide and crisis prevention, the college expanded its student services, which, in conjunction with University Health Services, work to identify suicidal students and “try to make them feel connected” with the school, Hopcroft explained.

Other programs during engineering students’ first year seek to develop this connection, such as the mandatory weekly meeting with advisors, or the Freshman Writing Seminar, which ensures that “all engineering freshmen have two courses with fewer than 30 students” each week their first semester, the Dean added.

Across the University, Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) identified 589 students last year who presented signs of depression as their “entering complaint,” making it the most common grievance of the student body, said Dr. Phil Meilman, director of CAPS. He did stress, however, that not all students with signs of depression were suicidal.

Surveys estimate that 20 to 65 percent of students have, at some point in their lives, entertained suicidal thoughts. Suicidal thinking “is actually not uncommon,” Meilman said.

“Completed suicide” at Cornell remains scarce, although “each suicide is one too many,” Meilman noted.

Whether it is because of good counseling or circumstances, “it’s hard to really trace (this rate) to cause or effect,” said Tanni Hall, the acting dean of students. “Statistics are tricky.”

Zeynep Kayhan ’04 was one student who was not surprised by the Globe’s survey. “At other schools that don’t have the same academic reputation, [student suicides] don’t catch the eye as much as they do here,” she theorized.

Despite the wealth of services the University offers to find guidance and counseling in times of crisis or doubt, “students who commit suicide tend not to seek mental healthcare,” Meilman said, adding that this was a common finding at Cornell, and at other college counseling services in the country.

“People need to look after one another, that’s what caring means,” Meilman said. “I am absolutely convinced that a significant number of lives have been saved by the timely intervention of friends, Resident Advisors, parents, and faculty,” he said.

The Empathy, Assistance and Referral Services (EARS) trains students to answer their fellow Cornellians’ distress calls.

The service, generally staffed by two student volunteers every night, answered 640 calls last year, 20 of those being from “students in distress,” Simpkins said. The counseling hotline provides referral to University and outside advisors and therapists and creates a link with the caller.

“Listening is really helpful,” said Sarah Simpkins, advisor for EARS.

Nevertheless, in regard to the nine student suicides over the past ten years, Simpkins feels that “the need for counseling has increased and the ability to meet that demand has not quite increased.”

Echoing this position, Hall added that she felt the North Campus Residential Initiative and the West Campus Living Learning Community would have “a lot of support services built into them.”

The Globe survey used data provided by the ranked colleges. Among twelve others, fellow Ivy League schools Columbia University, Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania and Yale University, declined to provide information to the daily.

Archived article by Ariane Bernard