Cornell suicides raise concerns across Ivies

With finals and job searches looming, Penn can become a ‘pressure cooker’

· March 24, 2010, 4:40 am   ·  Updated March 24, 2010, 12:00 am

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- Suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15- to 24-year-olds. - In that same age group, there are approximately 100 to 200 attempts for every completed suicide. - Males take their own lives at almost four times the rate of females. Source: Centers for Disease Control

The suicides of two Cornell University students earlier this month triggered concerns about collegiate stress levels.

The men’s deaths — which were unrelated and came on the heels of a February suicide — brought the total number of suicides at Cornell for the academic year to six. This led Cornell’s Mental Health Initiatives Director Timothy Marchell to declare a “public-health crisis.”

Cornell has been dealing with its reputation as a so-called “suicide school” for years, but the recent string of tragedies garnered major media coverage and prompted discussions about mental health at Cornell and across the Ivy League.

March and April are “the hardest months every year,” according to Penn’s Director of Counseling and Psychological Services Bill Alexander. Between cramming for finals and stressing about graduation requirements and job searches, “it’s really a pressure cooker here.”

Although there is no definitive data on the subject, Alexander said anecdotally, the most competitive schools do face problems with students being driven to their breaking points.

“Think about it as tens of thousands of people who are already type A in a small place. They are academically talented and academically aggressive,” he said, which creates a stressful atmosphere compacted into less than 10 city blocks.

Ann Haas, director of prevention projects at the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, explained that mental health disorders — not stress levels — are the main factor contributing to suicides. But “access to lethal means” also plays a key role, and at Cornell the infamous bridges above the gorges present both a “real” and a “very public” means for suicide, she said.

Additionally, Ithaca, N.Y., where Cornell is located, is known for having oppressive weather, but experts did not believe that this was a major factor in students’ mental health.

Jennifer Streid-Mullen, executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service center in Ithaca, said the normal pressures of an elite school can combine with predisposition to mental illness to drive students to “extreme measures.”

“Suicide is very impulsive for the majority of young people. Somebody is stressed, and something else has gone wrong that day — it can be just enough to make a person seek a way out suddenly,” Streid-Mullen said.

In response to the suicides, Alexander said Cornell undertook a “Herculean effort,” knocking on literally every student’s door to “make sure they’re okay.” The campus bridges are being patrolled by Cornell police, privately-hired security and emergency medical response students.

The somber mood on campus, combined with the added pressures of midterms, made for “a very down feeling” before spring break, according to Cornell Student Assembly President Rammy Salem.

“The cumulative effect of this loss of life is palpable in our community,” Cornell’s Vice President of Student and Academic Services Susan Murphy said in a video address.

Salem agreed that administrators “made an aggressive preventative effort” to reach out to students, handing out informational pamphlets and chocolate. “They’re definitely doing the best they can,” he said.

Much like at Cornell, CAPS and campus administrators at Penn “work so hard to fight for people not to become anonymous,” Alexander said. Cornell has almost 14,000 undergraduates, compared to Penn’s 10,000.

Cornell administrators maintain that the university’s suicide rate is not above the national average. Newspaper reports often cite the rate of undergraduates committing suicide as 7.5 out of every 100,000, but Haas explained that this number is outdated and could be inaccurate.

The only certain data is the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2006 statistic for all young adults ages 15 to 24, because death reports do not indicate whether a student was enrolled at a university. In that age bracket, 12 out of every 100,000 people commit suicide each year.

In terms of revamping mental health programs, Alexander said nothing formal has been done at Penn in response to the Cornell suicides. “We are just checking and rechecking the system to make sure we don’t get rusty or complacent,” he said.

Still, many argue that universities do not have adequate programs in place to prevent campus deaths or respond to tragedies if they do occur.

Esmeralda Williamson-Noble — whose son committed suicide by jumping from the tenth floor of the Bobst Library atrium at New York University in the fall — has become an activist for campus suicide prevention.

Rather than responding in a way that met students’ needs, “NYU seemed much more concerned with their image” after her son’s suicide, she said, “and that is not helpful to the college population. That is not conducive to healing.”

Williamson-Noble cited a 2008 New York Times article, which showed that suicide, in general, is preventable.

The piece, written by Scott Anderson, detailed the British coal-gas story. For decades, British homes had been heated with coal gas, which is high in carbon monoxide, and by the 1950s, half of the nation’s suicides were committed by “sticking one’s head in the oven.” When the British government reduced the amount of carbon monoxide running through the gas lines in the early 1970s, suicides dropped by nearly a third and have remained at the reduced level, according to Anderson’s article.

“Quite inadvertently, the British gas conversion proved that the incidence of suicide across an entire society could be radically reduced, upending the conventional wisdom about suicide in the process,” Anderson wrote.

Despite all of the existing preventative measures, experts agree that colleges can always work harder to educate about the symptoms of mental disorders. Keren Sofer, a post-doctoral fellow in psychology at the Pennsylvania Hospital, discussed the need for interventions when there are warning signs and reducing the stigma of getting help.

Along the same lines, Haas said, “The kids who are having the problems aren’t the ones who are coming to the counseling center. We need to change that.”

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