March 8, 2011

Letter to the Editor: Productive dialogue on prevention

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Re: “The jig is up on the bridges,” Opinion, March 8As a recent alumnus, I was very troubled by the March 8 opinion piece entitled “The Jig is Up on the Bridges.”  The argument set forth in the article suggests that the fences, whatever the final designs, will serve as nothing more than an elaborately planned and fantastically expensive set of structures aimed more at saving face than saving lives. I feel strongly that this could not be further from the truth. While there is no doubt that the University is caught in a bind seeking a balance between student safety, public perception, legal liability and maintaining Cornell’s aesthetic beauty, there is far more at stake than simply “expensive versions of chain link fences.” The argument, as presented, falls victim to two fatal flaws.To begin briefly, I am certain it did not escape anyone’s attention that the first two paragraphs of the article consisted solely of ad hominem attacks on the architects and complaints about staffing difficulties in the Cornell Public Relations office. Without passing judgment on the validity of the claims made against the offending parties, it is clear that such material adds nothing to the debate over the design and implementation of the fences. The allusions to some sort of administrative conspiracy only serve to further discredit the author’s case.More importantly, with regard to the Glasgow study that supposedly debunks the logic of means restriction, I must caution against jumping on this bandwagon too quickly. Having read the report in its entirety, I can say that the results presented are predicated upon a number of basic assumptions that do not apply to the Cornell campus. These include ease of access to bridges, Ithaca’s geographic location, the median age of the Cornell community and the inherent social intricacies of a college campus.One of the peculiar aspects of suicide by bridge (and other methods as well) that has emerged through research and interviews with suicide attempt survivors is that while the decision to jump is generally impulsive, the particular method and/or location of the attempt are often specifically planned. In other words, individuals who hope to die by jumping from a bridge often have a particular bridge in mind. This gives cause for hope in the effectiveness of means restriction. The attachment to a specific place or method can be hugely important: Longitudinal studies of persons who wished to attempt suicide but were prevented from doing so by means restriction show that 89 percent do not go on to die by another means of suicide in the long term. Whether is it the publicity (or infamy) garnered by a particular bridge, the romanticism associated with a special location or just a highly specific desire to choreograph one’s death, research is increasingly suggesting that individuals prevented from committing suicide by their primary method of choice rarely substitute a different method later.I fear, however, that the fencing debate has forced from the spotlight the more fundamental issue of our community’s mental health status. The National Institute of Mental Health estimates that for every “completed” suicide among young Americans, there are between 100 and 200 unsuccessful suicide attempts. Every single suicide, no matter the method, is an indicator of a much deeper reservoir of pain and discomfort in our community. I urge my fellow Cornellians not to get bogged down in the issue of fencing, but instead to turn our collective intellect and creative powers towards designing a more comprehensive remedy to the problem of suicide on our campus.Justin Granstein ’10