November 12, 2003

Schools Study Suicide

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The issue of suicide on college campuses has been thrust into the national media spotlight following three New York University student suicides this semester.

According to the Jed Foundation, a non-profit organization committed to reducing the suicide rate among young adults, approximately seven college students per 100,000 die from suicide each year. The organization projects 1,100 suicides this year among college students. According the U.S. Department of Health, the suicide rate among teens tripled between 1970-1990, rising from 3.6 youths per 100,000 to 11.

“Nationwide, you will see colleges and universities prioritizing suicide prevention,” said Sharon Dittman, associate director of community relations at Gannett: Cornell University Health Services.

Last April, there were four student deaths at Cornell, although not all were determined to be suicides.

“We are doing more and more every year [to prevent suicides],” Dittman said. “We are determined to become atypical [with respect to national averages].”

The university has set out to accomplish this goal in a number of ways. For the past six years, after every suicide at Cornell, the Community Support Team Network has met to respond to and assess each situation.

“We go out on very short notice and help people talk about their feelings and thoughts and come together as a community,” explained Phil Meilman, director of counseling and psychological services and support team member. “It’s one of the best things we’ve instituted.”

It is not yet clear whether the three suicides at NYU were related, but concern over the “copycat” effect of a suicide is omnipresent. “It’s a time when anyone who has had a suicidal thought tends to revisit it,” Meilman said. “It’s a time when people are particularly vulnerable.”

This is one of the primary reasons the support team was formed.

Support team and suicide prevention foundations nationwide have discovered that the secret to prevention may lie in awareness. According to Kent Hubbell ’67, the Robert W. and Elizabeth C. Staley Dean of Students, “The key is to educate the community when they find a student who they believe is in crisis.”

Collaborating with the University Counseling and Advising Network, Cornell has begun programs to help educate community members who are in a position to help, including residential advisors.

According to Dittmann, the most important outreach likely comes from peers.

“I think that students really need to take care of one another,” Hubbell said. “If someone who you are acquainted with is thinking about suicide and expressing it in various ways, we need to know.”

“It’s these personal connections that can make a huge difference,” Dittman added.

The reason awareness is so important is that it most often leads to counseling for students who are exhibiting signs of trouble, Dittman said. “If you look at the statistics, it’s a relative minority of people who are in counseling who commit suicide nationwide,” Meilman explained. “People who commit suicide tend not to be in counseling.”

According to Meilman, making sure people get help and counseling is a a priority on East Hill.

When Cornell students do seek counseling through Gannett’s Counseling and Psychological Services department, each is given a mental health screening to determine suicide risk factors. Once counseling begins, it can act as a protective factor.

“Suicidal thinking is not an all-or-nothing proposition,” Meilman added. “It’s usually 51-49 [in the person’s mind]. In order to get someone from suicidal to not suicidal, all we need is a one percent shift. Just a little help at the critical moment can make the difference between life and death.”

Recent lawsuits have forced universities to reevaluate the amount of outreach they offer students contemplating suicide. In 2000, MIT student Elizabeth Chin and Ferrum College student Michael Frentzel both committed suicide, after which their parents initiated litigation against each respective university. They alleged that the schools were too concerned with student privacy that they overlooked obvious warning signs that the students were suicidal.

While the verdict on the case against MIT is still pending, Ferrum College reached an agreement with the Frentzel family in which they admitted they had failed to recognize key warning signs.

Because of the media attention being devoted to these two cases — in addition to the recent NYU suicides — universities nationwide are taking steps to avoid a repeat of these tragedies.

Cornell has engaged in meetings with a group of peer institutions. These universities, which met last week in New York to continue discussions, are working closely with the Jed Foundation to help prevent suicides. The foundation was founded by the parents of a University of Arizona student who took his own life.

“[These meetings] have been very good because [they] enable us to talk to peer institutions and brainstorm together and look at what’s being done,” Meilman, who attended one of the meetings last Tuesday, said. “You get a cross-pollination of ideas.”

“These problems are not unique to Cornell,” Dittman added. “We shouldn’t work from scratch.”

Striking the balance between privacy and outreach — a central feature of the MIT and Ferrum College lawsuits — can be a difficult task for universities to accomplish.

“Some people feel strongly that [early detection programs] are an invasion of privacy,” Hubbell said. “Especially at Cornell, where we have a great tradition of protecting personal privacy.” Yet, Hubbell continued, “the idea would be to come up with some kind of [early outreach] system that allows students in this kind of community to [help each other].”

“Privacy has a very high value, but saving lives has a higher value,” Meilman said. “You can’t protect the former if someone isn’t alive.”

Meilman also stressed that the University can notify students’ families that a life-and-death problem exists without necessarily revealing the reasons for that situation — doing so could be exceedingly invasive for the person seeking help. “Most of the time, families are amazingly helpful when it comes to a crisis of life-threatening proportion,” he reiterated.

Nearly everyone agrees that suicide prevention programs and efforts could always be improved. “Every time there’s been a suicide in recent memory, we always feel like there’s more we could be doing,” Dittman said. However, she noted that she felt good about the programs that have been implemented as the university has made constant forward progress in suicide prevention. “It’s the evolution of [our efforts] that makes us feel good,” she explained.

“It’s fair to say that Cornell is not a place where there are more suicides than other universities, but that doesn’t mean we can’t continue to strive to get better,” Hubbell said. “One suicide is too many.”

Archived article by Billy McAleer