March 18, 2010

Student Assembly Focuses On Response to Suicides

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How the University should respond to recent tragedies was the central focus of Thursday’s Student Assembly meeting. S.A. members heard a presentation from Vice President of Facilities Services Kyu-Jung Whang and Director of Mental Health Initiatives Dr. Tim Marchell and also approved a resolution recommending the creation of a mandatory mental health event for New Student Orientation.

Whang spoke about the University’s plans regarding the implementation of suicide deterrent measures on the six main bridges on campus.

“From … a facilities perspective, we have good reasons to believe that putting up some kind of barrier around the bridges would make some difference in the occurrence of suicides. … There are numerous examples around the country and around the world where barriers have decreased the incidence of [suicides].” He added, “We don’t want to see anybody get hurt and we feel we need to do something as quickly as possible.”

According to Whang, the University plans to take advantage of the absence of students during the coming week to implement temporary barriers to provide a short-term solution. He noted, however, that three of the six main bridges are Ithaca city property and not campus property and he said, “It’s a lot simpler [to put up barriers] on the three bridges that are on campus [property].”

Regarding plans for the future, Whang said, “We want to make sure that whatever we end up with is not unsightly since a lot of people come to Cornell because of the beauty of the campus and we don’t want to ruin that.”

Rep. Roneal Desai ’13 brought up the possibility of installing nets underneath the bridges on campus, citing the fact that the Golden Gate Bridge Committee recently approved the installation of nets underneath San Francisco’s landmark bridge as support for the installation of such nets at Cornell.

“As far as the design of the barriers, we’re getting way ahead of ourselves here. The Golden Gate Bridge is a good example,” Whang said. “… [but] all seven of our bridges are very different from one another and have very different designs, so we’re going to treat each bridge individually.”

Whang was only able to offer limited information as to what exactly a long-term solution would entail.

“Right now we’re considering a lot of different options — they all involve some sort of chain-link fencing that we want to put up. …We hope to have a decision very soon.”

Rep. Adam Nicoletti ’12 questioned the need for such drastic measures. “If the rate of suicide at Cornell [had been] about average, why are we going to such extremes for solutions that we don’t know are going to have any effect?”

According to Marchell, literature in the field of suicide prevention in young adults has been growing rapidly. “Many of the studies are only less than 10 years old,” he said.

Regarding recent findings on the efficacy of fences as suicide deterrents on bridges and tall structures, Marchell said, “What they’re finding is that — contrary to what we may believe that people will just go to another bridge to commit suicide — that the rate of suicide drops and it doesn’t rise somewhere else.” He added, “The thing to understand about why these barriers work is that suicide in young adults is often an impulse.”

In conclusion, Marchell noted, “We are in an unusual situation right now; this is a crisis. Over a 10 year period we are not above other colleges in suicide rates but we are in a crisis situation right now.”

In response to the current “crisis situation” Rep. Andrew Brokman ’11 presented a resolution recommending that, “ …New Student Programs add another required event to orientation that will cover a variety of student health issues.”

Brokman said, “This is a community approach to mental health; it doesn’t just cover suicide prevention it also covers other issues likesexual harassment, substance abuse … and handling stress.”

He noted that this would be one of only two required events at New Student Orientation: “Currently there is one required event [and] that is Tapestry; this would be the other required event.”

Attached to Resolution 63, Brokman presented a letter of support from the Assistant Dean of Students in charge of New Student Program Sarah Jones. He also noted that he had spoken with and secured the support of a number of different campus organizations including, the LGBTQ student union, Cornell Minds Matter and members of the Orientation Steering Committee.

S.A. President Rammy Salem ’10 said that he approved of the resolution and of Brokman’s decision to, “initiate the S.A. response to the event.” Salem added, “He’s consulted all the appropriate people for this [including] the dean in charge of all the orientation week events.”

“I like that this is laying down a general idea of what we want the intent of the event to be, but this is just beginning the process and from now till next August the details are really going to be fleshed out depending on the preferences of the New Student Orientation steering committee.” He added, “I’m definitely in full support of the resolution.”

Many members of the S.A. concurred with Salem and Brokman and ultimately the resolution passed easily, with only one opposing vote and three abstentions.

Correction: An earlier version of this story incorrectly attributed a comment from Adam Nicoletti ’12 to Johnathan Rau ’12. The story also incorrectly attributed a remark from Vice President of Facilities Services Kyu-Jung Whang to Roneal Desai ’13. In addition, because of a layout error, the print version of this story ended prematurely. The complete version is published above.

Original Author: Keri Blakinger