March 16, 2010

Campus Discusses Aftermath of Student Deaths

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Despite air, ground and water searches of Fall Creek Gorge and the waterway leading to Cayuga Lake, police said Tuesday that they were still unable to recover what is believed to be the body of Matthew Zika ’11.

The Ithaca Police Department, which is leading the investigation, said it planned to further expand the multi-agency recovery effort Wednesday by bringing in resources — including an underwater camera and sonar equipment — from the Yates County Sheriff’s Office and Broome County Emergency Services.

The recovery efforts began Friday afternoon when witnesses observed a person — who investigators have identified as Zika — drop from the suspension bridge over Fall Creek Gorge in a suspected suicide. Zika’s death followed the death of William Sinclair ’11, which investigators also suspect was suicide, according to the University.

Questioned by national media outlets this week, the University has released more details about the other student deaths this academic year. Besides the two suspected cases of suicide last week, medical examiners have determined that four other enrolled students died by suicide this year, according to Deputy University Spokesperson Simeon Moss ’73.

Moss said that privacy rules still precluded him from discussing the circumstances surrounding individual student deaths.

The University and student groups continued their mental health outreach efforts Tuesday as planning went forward for a large community-wide event scheduled for Wednesday. Cornell Minds Matter, a student-run mental health advocacy group, held a discussion with students, staff and faculty Tuesday afternoon to discuss the unease facing the campus community.

Assistant Dean of Students Casey Carr ’74, the CMM advisor, addressed possible reasons for the recent increase in student deaths.

“We know that when there’s a loss, sometimes it triggers other losses,” Carr said. “There’s somewhat of a myth here that we have it worse than anywhere else. I think that [myth] isn’t one that serves you well; many people in college feel life is difficult.”

Kathleen Davies ’12 recently joined the organization because she said she wants to improve community attitudes and help prevent future deaths.

“I’d like to fix the culture of stress, and getting that message to the faculty and other students is how we can make that change,” Davies said. “I don’t think anyone can deny that there isn’t a problem here after what has happened.”

Carr said that the number of deaths since August were “unbelievable, huge [and] very unusual.”

However, Carr also emphasized that Cornell’s average suicide rate over the past five years is not as high as what people perceive. There were no suicides recorded between 2006 and 2008, which puts the University under the national rate of 1.5 per 20,000 students per year, Carr said.

Other attendees pointed out the need for an increased awareness of symptoms of depression and signs of suicide. These signs include unusually high or low levels of activity, eating and sleeping, as well as increased irritability, social isolation and talk of death.

Discussions at the meeting also focused on the importance of helping others and seeking a balance between grades, responsibilities and relaxation. Students mentioned music, exercise, meditation and social gatherings as ways to reduce stress.

Students also expressed concerned about the lack of gathering places and the impression that the University is only a place of instruction. Libraries are places for students to meet, but people are asked to keep quiet in most areas.

Earlier this year, CMM members distributed a handbook to help faculty identify students under stress and create a program that is not stressful. In addition, the organization will play an active role in Wednesday’s “Lift Your Spirits” event on the Arts Quad by providing playdough, candy and a table where people can write thank you notes.

CMM also hopes to hold more “How to Help a Resident” training sessions for R.A.’s and expand their “Random Acts of Kindness” program, which involves volunteers giving candies and hugs to students before prelims.

Holly Lau ’11, president of CMM, said Tuesday’s meeting had a “really good turnout,” since it was advertised beyond their regular listserv as a resource for anyone who needed to talk. Lau said she hoped that “people become more aware of this need to take care of their mental well-being” and realize that seeking help is less stigmatized than years ago.

Ellen Abrams, director of after trauma services at the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service in Ithaca, also attended the event.

“You are not alone here on campus, anyone can call any time — it doesn’t have to be suicide,” Abrams said. “We have posted signs around all the bridges and we have been working with the Cornell Police within the past few days.”

When asked about how recent events have impacted her organization, she cited an increased number of calls, although she said she could not provide specific numbers because of privacy concerns.

“Since there’s a lot of discussion given what’s happened, it feels like a lot because that number is being inflated by hype,” Abrams said. “There has certainly been an increase in media coverage and college communities like Cornell can easily feel insolated.”

Carr noted the Dean of Students office offers support meetings to combat these feelings of insulation.

“If you know anyone who’s specifically affected, please let us know,” Carr said. “If any group wants help, Cornell University provides these meetings to support that.”

This story was written and reported by Brendan Doyle, Michael Stratford, Tim Becker and Andrew Hu.

Original Author: Sun Staff