November 28, 2010

Examining the Case for ‘Means Restriction’

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Well, we finally know how much “means restriction” costs. The Sun reported last week that the University spent around $350,000 on the temporary barriers that now obstruct seven bridges and will spend at least $600,000 to construct permanent ones. In contrast, it spent only $150,000 to improve mental health services.

In a Sun guest column that softened the impact of this news — after all, who really believes that the barriers merit the majority of the funding? — a close friend of one of the students who tragically committed suicide argued in favor of the fences. She noted that as a friend of the deceased, she was “the most fit to determine whether or not the fences are painful reminders of the tragedies” and, by implication, whether they were worthwhile.

In addition to these emotional arguments — which, by their very nature, are impossible to rebut — she also pointed to a number of empirical studies that suggested a causal link between barriers and suicide prevention. Let’s see if they actually hold up.

One famous study the author cites demonstrated that out of 515 individuals who attempted suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge but were prevented by rescue crews, only six percent subsequently committed suicide elsewhere or through other means. The study’s authors therefore rejected the argument that “they’ll just go somewhere else to do it,” and justified the use of barriers.

This study and its successors, however, are significantly flawed, and don’t tell us anything about the effectiveness of barriers.

In the original paper, Dr. Richard Seiden compiled the list of attempts by searching through the records of the California Highway Patrol; he then submitted their names to the California Office of Vital Statistics for a death certificate search. The study suffers from two possible selection biases. The first is that the sorts of people who attempt suicide in such public places as the Golden Gate Bridge — where they know they can be rescued — possibly do it only as a “cry for help,” and are therefore unlikely to go try it elsewhere. The fact that only a small percentage went on to commit suicide is hardly surprising, and tells nothing about the effectiveness of barriers.

Second, Seiden could only compile data for individuals tracked by the state — i.e., those whose information was captured by the Highway Patrol or Office of Vital Statistics. Our sample set includes only those willing to make themselves visible — a group that’s probably less likely to commit suicide anyways. We have no data for individuals who choose not to record their information, or for those who committed suicide in such a fashion that the state can’t record them. Therefore, the sample set is hardly representative.

Furthermore, let’s even assume no selection bias. The Golden Gate Bridge study still cannot show that it would prevent these so-called “impulse jumps.” As I’ve argued in an earlier column, these individuals only jump, and have the impulse to jump, when an opportunity exists. When there is no such opportunity — i.e., when barriers block a jumping-off point — why would they go to that point? In other words, we don’t know if barriers deter suicides because by definition suicide can’t happen there. We’d have to show longitudinal effects in the entire region.

And in fact, the author references a number of cases that purport to do just that. However, they don’t take into account the distinction between correlation and causation, or, more importantly, the statistical principle of regression to the mean, which would predict that higher than average suicide rates would necessarily be followed by lower ones. Therefore the decrease may not be attributed to the barriers but to pure statistical chance.

Faith in the barriers emerges naturally from a belief common to many idealistic college students: the top-down approach to policy. It suggests that complex social problems require smart solutions, and that experts can design and implement them to great success.

Proponents of the top-down approach can’t acknowledge that some problems are unresolvable — it goes against everything they’ve been taught about government social programs. Unfortunately, reality isn’t as neat as they’d like it to be.

This is especially true when we consider suicide, a societal problem that, as seen above, contains so many unknowns. Simply put, we can never know who would have committed suicide if not for the barriers. We therefore can never know whether they’ve been effective.

So where do we go from here? Though there’s no magic bullet when it comes to suicide prevention, the University is correct to try to improve its mental health resources. When it comes to the fences, however, University administrators and the student body should consider them in light of the recent layoffs, department cuts and other adjustments to the budget and ask: Are our priorities really in order?

Judah Bellin is a junior in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be contacted at jbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin