October 10, 2002

Researchers Find C.U. Is Not 'Suicide Capital'

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Gulping cups of cold coffee, scrambling to classes. It’s no surprise why some students believe Cornell’s high-pressure environment makes it the, “suicide capital of the world.”

Cornell ranks highest in perceived levels of academic stress out of twenty surveyed campuses, according to a 1998 study in The Select: Realities of Life and Learning in America’s Elite Colleges, a book reporting on surveys of students at Cornell and 19 other peer institutions.

The study also showed that Cornell tied for the highest amount of perceived social stress and that 55.8 percent of Cornell undergraduates versus 37 percent of Ivy League students noted that their academic environments were demanding.

“The notion that Cornell is the suicide capital of the world is a myth,” said Dr. Phil Meilman, director of Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) at Gannett: University Health Services.

Frederic Nyguen ’04 said that many students dramatized the gorges as a foreboding backdrop to the campus scene and that the high-stress environment at Cornell makes the issue of suicide more pressing here than at other institutions.

A Boston Globe survey published in February 2001, however, showed that the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and Duke University all surpassed Cornell in the number of suicides per 100,000 students from 1990 to 2000.

Meilman stressed the importance of demythologizing the belief that Cornell is the “suicide capital” and emphasized the need for students to understand why these notions exist instead.

The first reason, according to Meilman, is the rigorous environment at Cornell — academic and social — which may foster considerable pressures.

The mythology becomes a way for students to understand and legitimize their own experience of stress, he said.

Second, he noted that in the past, “outside individuals have come to Ithaca, sadly, to end their lives.”

“This may make it appear that these are also suicides at Cornell but these individuals may not be connected with Cornell,” Meilman said.

Third, Meilman said that the gorges are dramatic and that when there is a death connected with them, “it garners considerable public attention.”

On a statistical basis nationwide, there is one completed suicide per 10,000 college students per year. At an institution the size of Cornell with over 19,000 students, two such deaths can be statistically anticipated each year, according to Meilman.

“But every suicide is one too many,” he added.

In the last 11 years, the total number of student suicides at Cornell has numbered 16, falling below the statistical expectation of 22, Meilman said.

“But again, these 16 tragedies are 16 too many,” he stressed.

Two weeks ago, Kent Hubbell, dean of students, initiated a suicide prevention study in conjunction with several campus support groups.

In the interest of prevention, a group of professionals will perform retrospective analyses of every suicide that occurs at Cornell in conjunction with Ithaca and Cornell police, Gannett and crisis managers as well as friends and family, according to Hubbell.

“We’re always searching for ways to act preventatively when it comes to suicides on campus,” he said.

The study will permit the University to understand when students need to be reached out to, according to Hubbell. The study will also create a network for communicating the University’s concerns to students, he added.

Tanni Hall, associate dean of students, said that looking at this issue systematically will lead to the development of a protocol aiding in the enhancement of the support mechanism after suicides or other tragedies occur.

The suicide prevention study will supplement the existing community support programs led by student affairs professionals and campus groups who reach out to affected students to help them deal with their reactions to suicide and death.

Archived article by Janet Liao