May 17, 2013

Three Years Later, Cornellians Celebrate Removal of Fences

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Updated Saturday morning with comments from Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett Health Services

Walking to campus Friday, a group of Cornellians stood at the suspension bridge. They paused to admire the view of the gorges — something that, until today, they were only able to look at through bars after a string of suicides in 2010 led Cornell to fence off seven of its bridges.

On Friday, the University removed five of the fences, according to John Keefe, project manager. The remaining two — those on the west side of Stewart Cascadilla and the Suspension Bridge — are expected to come down by May 24 and July 3 respectively, Keefe said.

The day, for many, marked a milestone in a three-year-saga that has provoked debates over how best to prevent suicides from happening in the City of Ithaca’s gorges. In 2012, Cornell agreed to replace the fences it had erected with mesh nets. The nets, which hang under the bridges and are equipped with heat-sensitive cameras that can detect when someone has fallen into them, are meant to restrict the bridges as a means of suicide while protecting the gorges’ aesthetics.

With construction on the nets complete, five of the fences — those on the Trolley Bridge, Stone Arch Bridge, Thurston Avenue Bridge, Stewart Avenue Fall Creek Bridge and east side of Stewart Avenue Cascadilla Creek Bridge — are gone.

“It is certainly a move in [a] positive direction to once again have an unfiltered view of the gorges, but at the same time have a feeling of safety that the mesh systems will provide,” Keefe said.

The Class of 2013 reflects on the fences

To John Mueller ’13, the fences were a reminder of depression, suicide — issues he said were on the forefront of his mind when he was a freshman at Cornell.

“I lost my dad to suicide right before I came to school,” Mueller said. “Then, after the winter, the fences went up.”

Having walked by the fenced bridges for most of his time at Cornell, Mueller said seeing the fences beginning to be torn down Friday marked a “huge moment of release.”

It was also a somber moment for seniors, who, while celebrating the end of exams, the arrival of Senior Week and their imminent graduation, paused to reflect on the suicides that occurred their freshman year.

“The fences coming down today are a joyful sign of the end of our struggles and the beginning of our celebrations,” Marie Camerota ’13 said, describing the moment as Cornell coming “full circle.”

“At the same time, it is a somber reminder that not all of our classmates get to celebrate graduation with us next weekend,” she added.

The removal of the fences also serves as a reminder to “remember those who could not finish this four-year journey with us,” Jose Oyola Morales ’13 said.

“[It is] a symbolic gesture to the class that witnessed so much tragedy,” Morales said.

‘Please learn to ask for help’

In the aftermath of the three gorge-related suicides in 2010, the University took immediate action. Residential advisors knocked on the doors of every dorm room; police were stationed at campus bridges; and Gannett Health Services kept the doors to its Counseling and Psychological Services program open extra hours.

When students returned from Spring Break, they saw that 10-foot high chain-link fences had been installed on all University-owned bridges — the most visible sign yet of the University’s response to the suicides.

With each step it took, the University continued to stress one message to community members: do not hesitate to ask for help when you need it.

“Your well being is the foundation on which your success is built. You are not alone,” President David Skorton said in a University-wide email on March 12, 2010. “If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength.”

Looking back on that spring, Adam Gitlin ’13 said he remembered students being particularly attentive to each other — watching out for their peers, and asking them if they were coping.

“Something that I remember very distinctly about that time was that students really took the opportunity to ask each other how they were doing,” Gitlin said. “Even if it was over dinner at RPCC or Appel, a lot of people just stopped and asked, ‘How are you doing?’ … and I think that was a very powerful step that the Class of 2013 took at the time.”

‘Don’t forget why the fences went up in the first place’

University officials stressed that, while the mesh nets will play a critical role in preventing suicide, they are just one part of the University’s approach to promoting mental health and suicide prevention on campus.

“Since the tragedies of 2010, we’ve expanded our mental health services and strengthen the network of support on campus by educating students, staff, and faculty members how to recognize and respond to signs of distress,” said Tim Marchell ’82, director of mental health initiatives at Gannett. “Making Cornell an even more caring community is a responsibility that we all share.”

Marchell urged Cornellians to reach out, express concern and offer support if they see a peer or colleague struggling.

The concern for others’ well being is something Mueller also said he hopes students foster around the community.

“I think the biggest thing to do — it sounds so cheesy — is to just smile at each other. Say hi to people you wouldn’t normally say hello to. That’s really all it takes — you can tell if something is wrong with someone with just a momentary reaction,” Mueller said.

As Cornellians and community members walk by the now fenceless bridges, Mueller said he hopes they do not forget the tragedies that led to their construction in the first place.

“Remember to honor and keep our classmates that are no longer with us in our minds and [to] reach out to our fellow Cornellians, fellow humans,” Mueller said.

Original Author: Akane Otani