April 20, 2001

Health Alliance Struggles To End Silence on Suicide

Print More

Local health advocates and statistical figures are beginning to dispute that Cornell is a “suicide school,” a label that has long stuck to the University with its high pressure environment and two cavernous gorges.

Many details related to suicide are difficult to prove, but the fact remains that suicide can arise in any place where isolation and hopelessness can overwhelm an individual — in any community anywhere.

To address the real concerns surrounding suicide and how best to confront suicide when students encounter it, the Student Health Alliance at Cornell (SHAC) convened a panel yesterday including local students and staff members to share in their experiences.

“Most of the time students at Cornell are very ambitious, but they really neglect their bodies physically and mentally,” said SHAC President Janelle Luk ’01.

Luk, who does not consider Cornell a “suicide school,” expressed concern that publicizing suicide may stir people to glorify the tragic act. On the other hand, she said that the publicity would generate awareness and augment the resources available in the community.

Ken Cohen, representing Counseling and Psychological Services, began the discussion with a description of how someone begins to consider suicide and how the situation can develop into an actual suicide attempt.

“Suicide is never or almost never the result of a single event,” Cohen said.

Anything painful could develop into a cause that leads a person to think about suicide, Cohen said, including various examples. A stimulus could be as concrete as the loss of a loved one or the end of a cherished relationship, and it could involve a loss of self esteem or anything that makes a person feel different from others.

In addition, Cohen noted that alcohol and drug abuse, physical abuse and the mere presence of suicide in the environment are other causes that may lead one to consider suicide.

While it sometimes takes 12 to 18 months before a person becomes suicidal, adolescents and young adults may act much faster.

“From the time that they begin thinking about suicide to the time that they make the first attempt can be as little as 24 hours,” Cohen said.

Later during the panel presentation, Kerry Fleischauer, a residence hall director remembered her friend Adam Powers, a Campus Life employee who committed suicide in January. Powers sent an e-mail to colleagues and friends, some who responded almost immediately by calling on Powers at his office. Only five minutes later, it was already too late to save him.

“A lot of time the reason a person is suicidal is because they think they don’t have any other outlets,” said Archana Verma ’02, an Empathy Assistance and Referral Services (EARS) counselor.

Following a demonstration by EARS counselors Julia Ellenberg ’01 and Neeta Rattan ’02, discussion shifted to how someone should approach a person who might be potentially suicidal.

“By being direct and very concrete makes it very real,” Cohen said, urging that people should not shy from a discussion of suicide — or from speaking the word itself.

Two positive results may come about from such a discussion, he said. A suspicious response may signal that something is wrong, or the inquiry may show the person who is suffering that he or she has somewhere to turn for support.

“There is so much stigma, so much shame about suicide,” Cohen said. “It makes it very difficult for people to communicate that they are thinking about killing themselves.”

Noting that about 80 percent of people who commit suicide give off warnings before doing so, Cohen said that light-hearted comments are opportunities for people to intervene.

“You don’t need to be a psychologist [to help somebody thinking about suicide],” Cohen said.

Yesterday’s panel was organized by Tamar Melen ’02, a member of SHAC. Sharon Dittman, associate director for community relations for Gannett: University Health Services moderated the discussion, and Ellen Schmidt, education coordinator for the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center (SPCS) and Scott McWilliam grad also spoke.

Next week SPCS will host the Walk for Violence Prevention, supporting community programs and efforts that foster the community’s safety from violence.

Archived article by Matthew Hirsch