March 16, 2014

OH | Cornell and Mental Health: Part One

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Despite the recent hiccup, the winter in Ithaca is finally melting away in an anticipation of spring. Increasing temperature and clearing sky boosts everyone’s moral: Sunlight takes away winter fatigue by suppressing melatonin secretion and grants us a happier, motivated mood by increasing serotonin. Even a good substitute for ultraviolet — litebox — can’t live up to walking through a green campus without a jacket on and letting the nature carry out its Vitamin D synthesis.

For some of us with seasonal affective disorders or other mood disorders, however, the change of season isn’t a mere relief from long, dark winter; it marks a victory we’ve achieved over the sinking depth of depression.

Although the current undergraduates weren’t present on campus during the spring of 2010, most of us are fully aware of that tragic semester when six Cornell students ended their own lives. The number and frequency of these suicide shocked the Cornell community and garnered national attention.

That particular year, for some reason, was tumultuous for other schools as well. A junior at Yale jumped off of the Empire State building in March, and a man shot himself on the Harvard Yard in September, after leaving a 1,900-page suicide note.

Whenever suicides occur on Cornell’s campus, people obsess over trivial statistics of suicide rates. For college-aged group, the national average is approximately one suicide per 10,000. Hence, it appears that suicide does not happen any more frequently at Cornell than other schools, or even for young people who aren’t enrolled in college.

Suicides at Cornell, however, have implications far beyond the scope of average suicide. First, it has to do with its public location people choose to execute the deed — which seem to be the gorges. While the setting alone may dramatize the situation at Cornell above others, but the scene is also preserved, at times for days, before a rescue team concludes its investigation.

Unlike suicides at a private location or an avoidable public space, crossing bridges at Cornell is integral to living and learning on this campus. Whether be freshmen on their way to morning class or upperclassmen climbing up from Collegetown to reach their classrooms, central campus is physically set apart from surrounding areas. Thus, it is inescapable for most Cornell students to cross at least two bridges every day to and from central campus.

Although we are constantly aware of the extensive history of each bridge, when there’s recent incident, we are reminded of the intensity and brutal difficulty of this place. The allegorical phrase cutthroat doesn’t seem like a pure analogy anymore. Walking over these bridges, mindful of the incidents that occurred there, it almost symbolizes soldiers marching on while walking over their fallen companions. We may have lost some of our troops but we shall stand strong and defend our ground

The first action Cornell implemented was to install fences around all the bridges and have security guards patrol the vicinity 24/7. When you look at the picture of these wires, notice they were inward, protecting the insiders than the outsiders. How ironic that we supposedly cream-of-the-crop high school graduates with high grades and intelligence need protection from not some external sinister being, but ourselves?

Suicide is a mystery. As much as we delude ourselves into thinking modern psychology and technology can solve every problem, we can’t. We’ve learned certain groups of people tend to commit higher percentage of suicide than others, that it’s a red flag when chronically depressed person expresses joy without an attributable cause, but these are just social science statistics.

Cornell administration has been working very hard to create helpline for students in crisis and train faculty staff and peers to monitor and care for students in needs. I applaud their effort and celebrate the fact that we haven’t lost anyone in that regard since 2010. However, in attempt to reduce or even eliminate on-campus suicide, I feel like we may have simplified the meaning of life.

 Don Oh is a senior in the College of Architecture, Art and Planning. He may be reached at [email protected]. Bi the Way runs alternate Mondays this semester.

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