March 16, 2010

Double Take: Ithaca in Mourning

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Andrew: You know, Munier, when I arrived at Cornell as a transfer student I had a lot to learn about this place. My first batch of friends told me all about Ruloff’s and the Commons, but also a darker side of Cornell. The deaths of Matt Zika ’11, William Sinclair ’12 and Bradley Ginsburg ’13 over the past month have reminded me of this darker side and caused me to wonder: Where do we go from here?

Munier: I know what you mean, Andrew. Back in high school I was applying to three colleges. All engineering schools in New York. When someone suggested adding Cornell to the list, I made a gagging noise and told the friend I would never attend such a pressure cooker in the frozen north country. The spector of competition, cold and suicide tends to vignette the Cornell aesthetic, especially for outsiders.

Andrew: I think I know where to begin: our reaction to these events. My friends on campus tend to be of two minds on how exactly we can make positive strides. Some are convinced of the efficacy of home visits, links to websites, columns, phone calls and any other means of reaching to those who mourn and those who otherwise might be in despair. Others are rallying for some sort of mass gathering — something between a party and a wake to get us all together and thinking of those we love, both present and departed. While I see the value in both of these exercises, what you said rings true. A reaction to a string of events as anomalous as these seems doomed to fail. But I want to do something. Anything! The mourning process, the administration and the community I enjoy here all seem to demand some action on my part.

Munier: I know exactly what you mean. By random chance, I was the first columnist set to write after these events occurred. My story appeared in an opinion spread almost completely devoted to covering these events. My first thought was: “What on Earth can I do to make this situation better?” I decided to focus on the positive going forward. Preventing a suicide epidemic, in my opinion, begins with an effort to focus on positive experiences. But that’s not enough. The mourning process is cathartic, and thus likewise beneficial. I think both approaches are needed.

This whole affair reminds me of New York University in 2003, where my oldest sister was in attendance. There was a string of five suicides that year. The settings were just as dramatic as the gorges: high rise buildings and two deaths in the 10-story atrium of Bobst Library. Cornell’s chief short-term goal should be to prevent a similar outbreak. Soft methods, like the ones we discussed, and “hard” methods, like bridge patrols, both seem necessary and appropriate.

Andrew: I couldn’t agree more. These tragedies demand all kinds of action, but they’ve also brought on a rare wave of introspection among the student body, myself included. Looking inward these past few days, I’ve wondered what I could have done to save a life? What would I have to be like, how bad would things need to get, to bring me down to suicidal despair? I’m woefully unprepared to speak on the data and causes of suicide, but it’s my sincerest hope that these same questions don’t bring some number of my colleagues down into a similar place. I suppose the question I’m trying to get at is how can we simultaneously engage with these tragedies without, in some way, having depressing and awful thoughts linger on campus, creating some sort of added and unnecessary danger?

Munier: I don’t think an open discussion necessarily feeds campus-wide depression. In fact, I could see how an honest conversation could strengthen those most in need — I find nothing more comforting than the notion that I am not alone. But what of the causes of suicide? There is certainly a link between suicide and depression. And depression can be diagnosed. A more proactive approach to diagnosing students could be a long term solution to the suicide problem. Faculty and staff ought to engage students, one on one, in a discussion that reaches far beyond careers and academics. Part of this involves the faculty realizing just how important a role they play beyond the laboratory and the lecture hall. They are mentors for all of us, and their efforts are part of a bottom-up approach to making Cornell not just a place of instruction, but a home.

Andrew: In the spirit of introspection, I’ll add that my own tendency as a student — one that I try to fight — is to make college about me. How well can I do? How much fun can I have? For my party-hardier friends out there, how wasted can I get?

As students we may have a long way to go in seeking out the downtrodden among us. This commentary may not be true of the close friends who, by all accounts, stood ready to support the students we lost this month. But this crisis, I hope, will cause us to reconsider the weird kid, the disheveled kid, the kid who is obviously or not so obviously having a rough time of it.

Munier: Agreed. College is a time of self improvement, but part of that is definitely learning to reach out with expressions of empathy. Strong communities are fading fast from the American landscape. We can stop that trend by learning how to help one another in effective, non-intrusive ways. That is certainly part of our transition from young adults to tomorrow’s leaders.

Andrew:  Yes, as we wind down this feature, and as each of considers our next step, I’d like to echo something a wise person once told me (it might have been you, actually). As much as we hope for the agencies, programs and structures of both Cornell and our government to help us out here, these organizations, as wonderful as they are, have their work cut out for them. They don’t have the ties and love and access that you and I enjoy in the community. You and I may be best equipped to save a life, and that can start today.

I attended a dinner late last week with the Board of Trustees where Susan Murphy gave the closing remarks. Tears came easily to her and the rest of the room — full of millionaire movers and shakers — in part for the loss of Matt, William and Bradley, but perhaps in greater part for the feeling of helplessness adults and outsiders must feel in their attempts to prevent future tragedies and ease our suffering. We, the students, know what’s up with our classmates (or at least more so), and everyone else is almost completely in the dark. So let’s take care of one another. Let there be love and community.

Original Author: Andrew Daines