March 8, 2011

Communication Barriers

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Tim Marchell, Gannett’s director of mental health initiatives, says fencing off the gorges has already saved lives. “We have at least two documented cases in which bystanders were able to successfully intervene in a suicide attempt because the barriers slowed down individuals who were attempting to jump,” Marchell told The Sun Feb. 25.Over the past few months, as I’ve written about Cornell’s suicide barrier debate for Landscape Architecture Magazine and Meta Ezra, I’ve learned that it never hurts to double check Cornell’s “facts.” So, I immediately clicked on the links that Marchell gave to The Sun, and The Sun inserted into the text of the article — apparently without checking them first. The links connect to two articles in The Ithaca Journal’s archives. Both are hidden behind a pay wall, where few people will be willing to shell out the $8 necessary to read them. The first article, titled “Man Stopped from Suicide in Gorge,” was published on May 25, 2010. It’s a short news brief, only 239 words long, describing how police stopped a 31-year-old Trumansburg man from jumping into the Cascadilla Gorge. I remembered this story from my research last fall and wondered why Marchell was citing it. The man did not seem to be slowed down by the barrier one bit. In fact, he actually managed to scale the fence and pull himself over, according to The Journal’s more complete account of the incident published on June 4. When police arrived on the scene many minutes later, he was perched on the rail on the other side of the fence, talking with an unidentified woman about his intent to end it all. From The Journal’s description of the incident, it actually seems like the barrier was an obstacle to saving the man. At some point, police brought in a negotiator to talk the man down, and this negotiator began to feed the man a rope through the fence. “[T]he rope was halfway around the man when it got hung up on the railing,” notes The Journal. “The man refused to hand it back to police officers and continued to slide along the railing toward the center of the bridge … [He] was ‘growing more visibly upset and now had turned his back to the fence and was facing out with both legs over the bridge.’” Luckily, one of the officers was able to poke his fingers through the chain-link fence and grab the man by his belt. The story ends with the officers taking bolt cutters to the barrier to pull the man to safety. The Journal provides no reason to believe the barrier helped save this man. Suicidal people were stopped by quick-thinking cops grabbing onto their clothing long before the barriers went up.As it turns out, Marchell’s second documented example was actually one of those cases. Yes, believe it or not, Marchell claims the fences were saving people even before they went up! The article was published on March 16, 2010, and it’s titled “Ithaca Police Officer Honored for Saving Suicidal Woman.” “[Officer Scott] Hoffman is credited with preventing a woman from jumping to her death into Fall Creek Gorge on Feb. 5,” reads the article. But we all know the fences weren’t up in February 2010. Some people who are against the barriers argue that suicidal people will always find a way to kill themselves, so there is no use in trying to help them. I am not one of those people. As a student at Cornell, I lost a friend and coworker to suicide in the Cascadilla Gorge. Marchell’s examples illustrate that suicidal people can be saved, but he provides no evidence that suicide barriers will aid in saving lives.

Daniel Jost ’05 is a writer and editor with Landscape Architecture Magazine and has blogged on the barrier issue for He can be reached at [email protected]. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Daniel Jost