April 20, 2011

Building Barriers and Bridges

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Most people, myself included, are ready to concede on the fences issue. There is reason to question their efficacy and be aesthetically displeased with the proposals for permanent barriers, but they do have the potential to save lives. This potential, however, comes merely from their ability to deter people from a single, very lethal means of suicide at specific locations. And because that is all they can do, there is plenty left to be done. As Caspar Anderegg ’12 put it in a December 1st letter to The Sun, “our goal should be to keep students from reaching a place where they feel suicide is their only option. We need to stop focusing on bridges, and start focusing on us.”

If we want to take a more comprehensive approach to suicide prevention, and quite frankly, enhance the Cornell experience for all students regardless of whether they ever contemplate suicide (because the vast majority of us won’t ever seriously consider it), we must take proactive measures to promote health and wellbeing, not just restrict one of the preferred means of suicide in Ithaca.

Of course, this is official University policy in the form of its “Mental Health Framework.” But there has been so much debate around the bridges that the focus seems to have been diverted from some of the more important issues. A perception has developed among students that the University needs to pick up the slack in the area of mental health promotion. Many have written articles and op-ed pieces in The Sun on this issue, including the outgoing and incoming Student Assembly Presidents who called on the administration to foster more dialogue on the subject in a joint article published April 6. And I say to the administration, whether or not you think our dissatisfaction is justified, you ought to take note.

The University’s typical response is to tout its expansion of counseling services. I applaud the recently announced million-dollar increase to Gannett’s budget, however we should realize two things. First, Gannett officials will tell you as they told me at a forum on means restriction earlier this month, demand for services is still not being met. And second, only a relatively small number of students actually use these services. More programming is therefore needed to involve and educate larger portions of the student body on how to take care of and look out for themselves and one another. Some relevant mandatory programming will be incorporated into freshman orientation beginning this fall, but questions remain: Will it be enough and what programs will be implemented, if any, involving upperclassmen?

More dialogue between administration, faculty, and students is indeed necessary, yet better marketing for such events must be done in order to draw out more students and their ideas. The only prior notice available to all students for the Wednesday April 6 forum entitled “Academic Rigor and Supporting Students” was its mention by the S.A. presidents in their joint article published the same day. At the very least, all students should have received prior notice about the event via e-mail.

Next, the University must come through on proposals that come out of these meetings, like making it official policy to allow students to postpone major assignments or exams due within very close proximity of one another.

But we should look beyond counseling services and easing the academic burden for ways to help students out. We must think bigger, think outside the box and consider more innovative solutions that get at other sources of student stress. Why not make fitness centers available to all students? Think how limiting Ithaca winters can be for engaging in safe and comfortable physical activity. Why aren’t we talking about improving financial aid? President Skorton admitted in an interview with The Sun in February that financial aid does not adequately support students and their families (my personal balance sheet can readily speak to that). And why now are we seeing cuts to the budgets for student services and community center programs?

Bridge barriers aren’t a foolproof solution, and even those in support of them acknowledge such. But that debate should be and is being put to rest. If we want to build barriers, that’s fine, but the administration needs to bridge the gap separating itself from its students. The expression of student frustrations about what is (not) being done to promote health and improve the student experience should be enough of a red flag for the administration to both take note and take action.

Ben Piñon is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at bp249@cornell.edu. Guest Room appears periodically this semester.

Original Author: Ben Piñon