May 3, 2010

Suicide Prevention at Peer Schools May Guide Cornell

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This is the first in a series of stories examining the suicide barriers on bridges around campus and the University’s plans for future suicide prevention.

In the wake of the string of campus suicides this semester, students, faculty and University administrators are grappling with complicated issues regarding how to use bridge fences, mental health services and other suicide prevention strategies to prevent additional student deaths.

While most schools deal with the issue of suicide from time to time, a handful of institutions — including New York University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — have experienced high-profile waves of student suicides similar to what occurred at Cornell earlier this semester.

As the semester ends and University administrators are deciding how to prevent student suicides in the future, they are looking to schools that have experienced similar problems — including New York University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology — for ideas on prevention strategies.

During the 2003-2004 year, six NYU students committed suicide. Two of the students died within a two-month period after jumping off balconies in Bobst Library, the 12-story main library on campus, according to a 2003 NYU press release.

Similarly, Cameron Dabaghi, Yale ’11, died by suicide last month after jumping off the observation deck of the Empire State Building.

Despite the widespread publicity some of these suicides have received, college students average about 7.5 suicides per 100,000 per year, which is lower than the national average of 11 suicides per 100,000, according to Ann Haas, Ph.D., director of suicide prevention projects for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Additionally, suicide by jumping makes up a very small proportion of all suicides that occur in the United States, according to Dr. Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.

Increased media attention to student suicides, though, may have influenced the cluster of deaths at schools like NYU and Cornell, which involved multiple students committing suicide within a short period of time using similar methods, said Alan Siegel, chief of mental health services at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

“Clusters occur more frequently among the young and particularly where there is media attention brought to a suicide,” Berman said. Also known as the “dose-response effect,” the more publicity the suicide receives, the more likely it is that there will be other suicides to follow, he said.

NYU’s Response to Suicides

In response to the 2003 suicide cluster, NYU permanently installed Lexan barriers made of transparent plastic around the balconies in Bobst library to prevent this cluster effect, according to a report by the Washington Square News, NYU’s student-run newspaper.

The school has also blocked access to certain balconies within the residence halls and installed locks on all the windows, which prevent students from opening the windows more than a few inches, according to the NYU housing handbook.

These latter measures were taken in response to the suicide of one of the school’s freshman in 2007 after he jumped off the roof of his 15-story dormitory.

Although some NYU students have reacted negatively to the measures the school has taken, studies from around the world have shown that physical barriers that restrict access to “jump sites” are quite effective in preventing suicides, Berman said.

Effectiveness of Barriers

According to Berman, the decision to commit suicide is often made impulsively. So, having immediate access to a potential suicide point, such as a bridge or a high balcony, increases the likelihood that a person will complete their suicide attempt.

The suicide barriers thwart the immediate accessibility of these points, and only a small proportion of people go on to find an alternative method to attempt suicide once they are stopped the first time, Berman said.

“Perhaps about a quarter of [suicidal individuals] may not have been actively thinking about suicide ten minutes earlier, so if you can [prevent] the impulse, then you can ultimately get people to rethink their decision,” Berman said.

However, physical barriers are not completely effective at preventing suicide. For instance, Andrew Williamson-Noble, NYU ’11, jumped to his death this past November after climbing over the Lexan barriers in Bobst, according to the Washington Square News.

Still, Berman advises the University to make the fences surrounding the gorges a permanent fixture, as he said he believes their presence is a successful way to prevent future suicides.

“I don’t know why there would be any argument to take the [fences] down,” said Berman, “My hope is that the [University] recognizes that [these fences] are and will be effective.”

MIT’s Early Detection Strategies

In addition to physical suicide barriers, Berman said that “early detection models” of suicide prevention, or methods that seek to identify at-risk individuals and educate others about detecting the warning signs of suicide and depression, are also effective at reducing student death by suicide.

In the last few years, schools like MIT have used these early detection models to reach out to students before they consider taking extreme measures. Siegel said the school’s mental health department has had great success with an innovative online depression-screening survey created and sponsored by the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, which helps to identify at-risk individuals and groups.

The anonymous survey is usually sent out via e-mail and scored by on-call clinicians, who then contact students who indicated feelings of depression, homesickness or thoughts of suicide through an encrypted address to see if the students want to come in to talk with a counselor, Siegel said.

“On college campuses, outreach to troubled students is a particular need, as we know that the large majority of those who die by suicide have not sought mental health services,” Haas said.

However, the online survey and other preventative measures that MIT uses did not stop graduate student Henning Friedrich from dying by suicide in his apartment in 2007, according to a report in The Tech, MIT’s student newspaper.

“Even if a school does everything that [it] can, there are still going to be people who die by suicide,” said Courtney Knowles, executive director of the Jed Foundation, a group created to prevent college suicides and reduce emotional stress among students. “It’s a schools responsibility but it’s also the responsibility of the campus community at large.”

Original Author: Samantha Willner