November 21, 2010

Cornell Spends $575,000 on Suicide Response So Far

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Of the approximately $575,000 the University has spent so far in response to last spring’s student suicides, $350,000 — or about 60 percent — has gone towards the construction of “means restriction” barriers for seven bridges on and around campus, according to officials. In addition, $150,000 has helped bolster the University’s mental health counseling — though student demand for services, according to administrators, still exceeds Gannett’s capabilities.

Although estimating the total cost of the barriers that includes their design and construction costs is impossible until a design model is selected, University Architect Gilbert Delgado said the architectural firm Office dA will be paid around $600,000 for its work up through the schematic design process.  After the schematic design process, the University will have to devote additional resources to pay for the project’s completion and construction.

The $150,000 the University has spent on counseling has gone towards “expanded clinical staffing and new outreach programs,” according to Susan Murphy ’73, vice president for Student and Academic Services.

Gannett Director of Mental Health Initiatives Tim Marchell ‘82 said Gannett used the new funding to add counselors and to increase the number of appointments available through the Counseling and Psychological Services program.

Marchell added that Cornell has been putting “considerable resources” into mental health.  Marchell said Gannett has increased its number of counselors, thereby upping the availability of “triage” appointments — which give students access to counselors the same day they call in.

Other improvements, according to Marchell, include an increased availability of “walk-in” service hours, upgraded call service allowing students to speak to a person rather than a phone menu, and Saturday hours for both triage and walk-in appointments, a new extension.

Still, Marchell said demand for services probably continues to outpace what Gannett can provide.

“What’s the hypothetical point … that every student who seeks services would be able to get them? That’s a complicated question,” Marchell said. “We’re not there yet.”

Marchell said that “every time [Gannett has] increased services, students have availed themselves.”

Marchell said Gannett sees 14 percent of the student body in a given year for mental health counseling, but at other universities where these services are made available, that number has climbed to 18 percent. “We know there are many students in distress we have not seen for counseling,” Marchell said.

Marchell said it was important for the University to continue to see as many students as possible, since students coming into counseling are less likely to commit suicide.

“Most students who died by suicide have not seen a counselor,” Marchell said.

Forty thousand dollars has also been spent on “consultation about crisis and response,” Murphy said. Last spring, the University hired outside consultants with expertise in suicide prevention, suicide clusters and means restriction. The University also spent $35,000 last spring on hiring security guards to monitor the bridges for 24 hours an entire week last year, according to Murphy.

As for the bridge barriers, Delgado said that although there is no set cap on spending, “the University is not ready to fund any proposition that comes up.”

Given three proposals otherwise identical, if “one is markedly more economical to the University that’s the one we’ll go with,” Delgado said.

He added that the $600,000 to be paid to Office dA up through the completion of the schematic design is the upper limit on spending, and that the University is “still in negotiations [regarding] a couple items that might bring that number down.”

Like Delgado, Prof. George Hascup, architecture, said the total cost of the bridge barriers “depends on the nature of the project,” and that it was therefore impossible to estimate the project’s total cost.

Still, he said the fees for the schematics phase is “usually a third or one quarter of the overall design fee,” and that a project’s design fee “can be anywhere from seven percent to 15 percent” of project’s total budget, although he stressed estimating the total cost of the project was “impossible to say” and that he had no specific knowledge of the program itself.

Murphy could not say whether or not funding for psychological services would continue to be increased, although she stressed that the funding for the bridges is a “one time expense,” while increased Gannett staff is a “forever expense.”

Murphy also cited “Notice and Respond: Friend to Friend” and “Real Students, Reel Stories” as additional resources. The two videos teach students how to deal with stress and stressful situations.

Marchell said the increased demand for psychological services on University campuses has been an ongoing trend nationwide since the mid-1990s. This increase, however, has not been correlated with a rise in student suicides.

He said there was “no single reason” for this trend, but that this generation of students seems to be “more open to seeking mental health services than students in the past.”

Marchell called the bridge barriers “one part of a comprehensive approach to mental health and suicide.”

“As the proposals for means restrictions become clear, the University will have to look at all of the needs that are identified within this comprehensive approach and figure out which will be the priorities,” Marchell said. “That is a question we’ll have to grapple with.”

Original Author: Jeff Stein