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The Need For Facts, Not Mythology, On Suicides

The major problem with the recent attention that Cornell has received from the national media over the recent, tragic, student deaths has been that the media has focused on the Cornellian mythology of suicide, and not actual facts. In fact, in most cases, they seek to bury the facts and trump the mythology, no doubt to gain more readership, and advertising revenue.

Take, for instance, the case of the Inside HigherEd article published today that follows Cornell's attempt to dispel its image as a 'suicide school':

Of all the things Cornell University wants to be known for, suicide isn’t among them. And yet, after years of trying to shake the image that it’s a “suicide school,” as one official called it Monday, recent deaths have made it difficult not to associate the upstate New York institution with an above-average suicide rate.

Nowhere in the opening sentences is it stated (nor even suggested) that Cornell does not have an above average suicide rate. It may have above average suicide publicity, but statistic after statistic shows that Cornell does not have any more suicides than would be expected for a given population of college students.

So in lieu of fact, the reporters cite mythology, to further cement the connection in the reader's brain.

And then to add insult to injury, the actual facts of the matter are buried farther into the article, but further seeds of doubt are planted (my emphasis is added in bold):

“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?”

His 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.

It's unclear whether the university considers the rash of suicides as working out to about average over the last few suicide-free years, or an indication that something is systemically wrong at Cornell.

Thankfully an alumnus sets the record straight in the comments section:

Other institutions without similar "attractive nuisances" usually escape public attention when suicides occur among their students. The reason? Those tragedies generally take place behind closed doors on private property, such as residence halls, Greek houses or off-campus apartments. Although information about such deaths will undoubtedly circulate, the audiences tends to be much smaller; in addition, the media does not have ready access to information or to the scene.

Since leaving Cornell, I have worked with two other institutions that each endured one or more significant "suicide clusters" like the one Cornell appears to be experiencing now. Two of those clusters involved more student deaths than the number of losses Cornell has suffered: In one case, nine died in 18 months; in the other, and there were seven deaths in 10 months. In both situations the clusters took place on small campuses with less than one-tenth the enrollment of Cornell--thus making their suicide-per-capita ratios far higher than Cornell's. Yet not a single one of these 16 suicides on the other campuses was noted in any local media, aside from some losses being included in local obituaries.

So why did those other institutions not get the "suicide school" notoriety that Cornell has? Simple: All of their deaths occurred behind closed doors on campus property. While friends and classmates were certainly impacted by the losses and undoubtedly some fellow students availed themselves of campus resources and support services, news of the deaths just didn't travel very far. (The lack of "buzz" also had one particularly unfortunate consequence: It took the administrators of those other institutions longer to discern the troubling "cluster" patterns and to take action.)

Unfortunately, however, the article ran in USA Today, without the above-mentioned comment.

So here's what we know:

Statistics can tell you a lot more than anecdotes. And the fact is that suicide is a "stunningly common" way for people of this age to die. It's the second leading cause of death for young adults and that over long periods of time, Cornell has not had a suicide rate outside of the national average. Just because you hear about these tragic incidents more often because of their shockingly public nature doesn't mean that Cornell is afflicted by any more suicides than any other top school. In fact, for the last couple of years there were no student suicides.

The recent string of deaths has been an absolute tragedy, and unfortunately sometimes lightening strikes more than once, especially given the contagion nature of this sort of behavior. And Cornell will no doubt redouble it efforts to increase mental health awareness on campus, something it is already nationally recognized for. There are certainly things that Cornell can do to further limit this type of horrible situation.

But erroneously suggesting that Cornell is a "suicide school" or placing blame on Cornell as an institution for the unexplainable is not going to help matters at all.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 16, 2010 (#)

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