May 6, 2010

After 30 Years, Cornell Continues Debate Over Suicide Barriers

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This is the second in a series of stories examining the suicide barriers on bridges around campus and the University’s plans for future suicide prevention. The first story can be found here.

When the University lined the bridges around campus with chain-link fences in March, it immediately provoked a torrent of responses. Some members of the community praised the move as the appropriate response to three gorge-related suicides. Others protested, arguing that the fences were unattractive and ineffective structures that promoted a prison-like atmosphere and served as a constant reminder of tragedy.

This debate that has ensued on campus this semester — and continues as University administrators this week mull the future of the suicide barriers — is not the first time Cornell is wrestling with these issues. Nearly identical debates over suicide barriers played out on campus during the 1970s and 1980s.

In 1977, Cornell’s campus experienced three student deaths by suicide in the gorges and three other suicides in the same year. Two years later, the University proposed the installation of six-and-a-half-foot metal bars along the Collegetown bridge above Cascadilla gorge.

The proposal immediately elicited strong reactions from students, who made arguments similar to those that have been expressed this past semester.

“Cornell has not made a more arrogant decision yet this year,” asserted The Sun’s editorial at the time. “Cornell has deemed it appropriate to prescribe hideous metal bars as a death-defying medicine … Students’ freedom to run their lives as adults will be mocked as they stare through the prison-like bars.”

Some students decried the proposed barriers as ineffective, aesthetically unpleasant, and a constant reminder of tragedy.

“I don’t like it … It’s going to wreck the view,” Lisa M. Daniels ’82 told The Sun in 1979. “There are other ways of killing yourself besides jumping off bridges.”

“With all these new improvements, they’re making this place more and more like a prison,” Michael B. Yaffe ’81 added. “People are responsible for what they do, and I don’t think the University should play such a dominant role.”

“Does anyone really feel that putting bars on this particular bridge will save any lives?” asked several students in a letter to the editor in May 1979.

“Someone contemplating suicide, in my opinion, will not be deterred by metal bars,” James K. Firestone ’80 wrote in a letter to the editor. “Only personal interaction and personal concern for the potential suicide will act as deterrents.”

“With regard to aesthetics,” Firestone continued, “bars over Cascadilla would destroy the pristine view … I submit that elimination of any piece of this beauty can only be a detriment to the mental health of students, not an asset as we are led to believe.”

Another argument often-repeated at the time was that suicide barriers were not an appropriate way to address the problem.

Karla Zimmerman ’81 and Betsy J. Rubiner ’81 wrote in a letter to the editor: “The money and time spent planning for bridge bars could much more effectively be employed in providing for more and better academic counseling and psychiatric health programs.”

Still there were some supporters of the installation of bars or fences, who praised the administration for its “humane” approach.

The initial approval of installing bars on the Collegetown bridge in 1979 appears to have been the result of pressure on the University to act, especially from a local suicide prevention group and the family of a suicide victim, according to Sun reporting at the time.

In November 1977, Daniel Kram, whose daughter, Judy Kram ’77, died by suicide in a gorge, sued the City of Ithaca, asking a judge to require suicide barriers on city bridges. Although his lawsuit was dismissed, Kram was active in pressuring Cornell to install such barriers.

The father of another Cornell suicide victim, Mark Sherman ’81, took out a full-page advertisement in The Sun urging the University to do more to prevent suicide. “Are the trustees proud of Cornell’s high suicide rate? When will Cornell realize that all the doctors and lawyers it spews out are not worth one human life?” wrote Irving Sherman in April of 1979.

Nina Miller, then-director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service, also heavily lobbied the University to make the changes. The Sun reported at the time that “[Miller] said studies have shown suicide to be ‘method specific,’ so that when a commonly recognized, easy method is eliminated or made more difficult, the overall suicide rate declines.”

Though local suicide experts had strongly endorsed the plan, the conventional wisdom expressed by the vocal opponents was that suicide barriers were not effective. In fact, The Sun’s editorial tersely dismissed the notion that there was research supporting suicide barriers, deriding Miller’s group as “an Ithaca interest group bent on validating the credo ‘Statistics Lie.’”

Despite pressure from local suicide prevention activists, and another lawsuit from a suicide victim’s family in 1981, the University’s plans to erect suicide barriers on the Collegetown bridge faded away.

Yet, struck by a string of three gorge-related suicides this year, the University finds itself in a strikingly similar position as it did in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

This time, however, the campus debate is being informed by an ever-growing body of research in the field.

“Even going back to the beginning of this decade — nevermind the 80s or the 70s — there was very little research about what ‘means restriction’ did,” Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy ’73 said.

Today, this type of research on suicide prevention techniques is “emerging as we speak,” she added.

University administrators recently brought in experts, suicidologists, for a panel discussion with community leaders, meetings with students and to tour campus.

Suicide barriers, especially at iconic locations like Ithaca’s gorges, are increasingly considered “best practice” in the field of suicide prevention, according to those experts.

“We’re debriefing from all that we’ve learned,” Murphy said Thursday. “I don’t know where we’re going to come down.”

Murphy said that the University faces the challenge of steering campus dialogue away from an “either/or” discussion of whether to have fences.

One way to overcome this obstacle, Murphy said, is to try to add nuance to the discussion.

“You can’t think about all seven bridges in the same way,” she said. In addition, the bridges are “but one of many things we need to do” in terms of comprehensive suicide prevention, she added.

Despite efforts to look at long-term solutions, the University still faces difficult practical challenges relating to the temporary fences currently on the bridges. If the University decides to install long-term barriers, the planning and regulatory process could take months, which begs the question of what happens in the meantime.

Administrators will need to assess whether the premise under which the chain link fences went up in March — that Cornell was in the throes of a mental health crisis — remains valid.

“I don’t think there is any piece of research that will answer that. I think that’s going to have to be our collective judgment. “

An executive working group of administrators is currently addressing both immediate issues surrounding the City of Ithaca’s June 4 deadline for removal of fences on its bridges and longer-term visions for the bridges. The group will make a recommendation to President David Skorton, who will make a final decision.

Murphy said that the University would be providing an update to the community sometime next week.

Original Author: Michael Stratford