April 19, 2018

GUEST ROOM | Saving Face, Losing Lives: The Political Importance of Cornell Suicides

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Why is it that when we hear about hate crimes on campus, we can easily interpret such acts as political, systemically determined events — and are thus moved to anger — but when we hear of a student committing suicide in her own dorm room, all that we have to offer is our sympathy? Rather than reading her suicide as political, we deem it merely personal; a grieving process is initiated, and in a few weeks, the rest of the world moves on.

When talking about suicide, one is inevitably pushed towards discussing the personal rather than the political. The individual circumstances or symptoms unique to the person – and not the social or political conditions which produced them – are what tend to shape discussions following a suicide. For suicide theorist Suman Gupta, this is because more often than not, the act of suicide is deemed by mental health authorities (and subsequently, the media) as an “involuntary” decision:

Regarded as persons with a psychological dysfunction and subject to pathological disorder . . . suicidal individuals are divested of responsibility for themselves. Thus regarded, their motives and intentions can be disregarded, especially if they are inconvenient to establishment norms. They become involuntary symptoms of a malaise and therefore devoid of rational judgment . . . and suicide is thus removed from the possibility of political resonance.


Any time a suicide occurs at Cornell, it is inconvenient to the establishment which co-produced it. And instead of relating these deaths to the broader miasma that is Cornell’s shameful mental health services, surviving students are pushed by those in power to focus instead on the fixed, particular data of an individual’s life through the reading of suicide as an act without agency. In doing this, we are pushed in turn to mourn, rather than to rage, to recede into our homes, rather than to collectivize. And rather than a public and therefore possibly political mourning, we are pushed to mourn within the proscribed circuit of the individual, a circuit which doesn’t extend towards others except those institutionally designated, most notably the counselor located within a conveniently private, four-walled office. But of course, deaths like Miaoxiu Tian’s last December are not without agency. They are tragically voluntary. And they cannot be viewed within a vacuum separate from Cornell’s deleterious atmosphere which ensured for Tian suicide as the only possible solution to her troubles. In talking about student suicides, we need to view them through a political, and not solely personal, lens.

The move to depoliticize suicides within the Cornell community is one that the administration has been conducting since the six suicides that shook the campus during the 2009-10 school year, and which led to the construction of suicide nets in 2012 (all six of the student suicides occurred at the campus’ gorges). More invested in saving face than in saving lives, the Cornell administration – which includes Counseling and Psychological Services (CAPS) director Greg Eells and Skorton Center for Health Initiatives director Timothy Marchell — has struggled over the years to resist the moniker of “suicide school” that Cornell indubitably deserves. Instead of expressing remorse or culpability for their roles in student deaths, Cornell has routinely denied their part in creating the current atmosphere so inimical to students’ mental health. Consider for instance Marchell’s rebuttal to claims about Cornell’s status as a “suicide school” in an article posted in 2010, an argument which centers on the glaringly “public” aspect of gorge suicides:

“It’s well known that Cornell has a reputation as a ‘suicide school,’ which is not consistent with the reality of the statistics,” Marchell said. “And so we’ve asked ourselves, well, what leads to this, what contributes to that misperception?”

[Marchell’s] answer: the gorges. “Suicide that occurs in most communities is not something that happens in public, is not visible,” he said, noting that news media often don’t report on suicides because they happen privately and there are often concerns about copycat suicides.

But, “when a death occurs at Cornell in one of our gorges, it’s a very public experience,” he said. “It’s observed by people, many people hear about it, whether or not it is in fact a suicide, and the reality is that when it becomes visible it can create the sense of a higher frequency than it actually is. And so over the years, that has contributed to this perception. And part of that picture is that when non-Cornell-members die in the gorges, it’s sometimes perceived as a Cornell death when it may in fact not be.”


Rather than so publicly at the gorges, one imagines that Marchell much prefers students to kill themselves in the privacy of their own rooms so as to not besmirch the school’s good name. He must be pleased, for this is exactly what is currently happening: the public aspect of Cornell suicides removed, students like Tian are simply finding other ways to kill themselves privately which are much more politically convenient for the institution. Sometimes these deaths are not even recognized by the local media, as in the case of two graduate students in development sociology who killed themselves in 2016. One wonders additionally whether or not the presence of the nets on campus is less about the psychology of suicide prevention, as the university claims, than it is about reducing the visibility (and thus the political resonance) of student suffering, a move subtly captured by the reduced visibility of the nets themselves: the material net, only visible by straining one’s head over the bridge’s side, is purveyed as a reasonable substitute for the metaphorical, affective “net” that only a truly just, compassionate community could provide. Instead of engaging the myriad problems which have led (and are still leading) students to suicide, Cornell has spent up to $10 million on building nets. Compare this amount to the mere $22,000 they have spent on an internal review with the JED foundation. Imagine if these millions were spent instead on improving CAPS services, hiring diverse and qualified mental health providers, or on faculty training for assisting students with mental illness? The nets, after all, did not save Tian’s life.

The suicide nets which now populate seven gorge bridges on campus are the most blatant materializations of the administration’s refusal to address the deeper complexities of students’ suffering. Instead of seeing student suicides as merely personal tragedies, we need to address them for what they truly are: politically relevant events which should give us more than just a momentary pause. Students have already begun to collectivize in response to President Pollack’s rejection of an independent review of CAPS, but as it stands, this is still not enough. With the way things are now, the looming possibility of a next student suicide is not a matter of if it will happen, but when.

Peter Shipman is a graduate student in the Department of English. Comments can be sent to [email protected]. Guest Room runs periodically this semester.