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The Specter of Suicide

Rob Fishman '08 has adopted his masters thesis on the mythology of Cornell's suicides into an article on the Huffington Post. It includes a detailed, historical account of suicides on Cornell's campus including the ageless debate as to whether or not the presence of the gorges themselves, all things equal, encourages students to take their own life:

From very early on, the specter of suicide haunted Ithaca's gorges. In 1889, an engineering student named Edward Wyckoff drew up plans for a suspension bridge to span the northern gorge, Fall Creek. When a professor failed his proposal, Wyckoff angrily withdrew from the university, and, as legend had it, threw himself into the ravine. In fact, Wyckoff never jumped, and a decade later financed the bridge's construction himself. His erstwhile instructor was vindicated, however, when a replacement was installed in 1961. Still, the rather tenuous bridge remains steeped in mythology: it's said a kiss shared at midnight will portend certain marriage, while one unreturned will collapse the bridge entirely...

In 1764, Immanuel Kant speculated that anyone who beholds "deep gorges with raging streams in them wastelands lying deep in shadow and inviting melancholy meditation, and so on is indeed seized by amazement bordering on terror, by horror and sacred thrill." Under such circumstances, thought Kant, a man would be "diminished to insignificance," seeing only the "misery, peril, and distress that would compass the man who was thrown to its mercy." As his subjects contemplated the downstream abyss, Siegel noted, the thought of suicide was eerily comforting.

At bottom, the question for Cornell is not whether the gorges afford a dangerous outlet for the disconsolate or disturbed (by all accounts, they do). It's if, absent the gorges, some of the suicides could be avoided. Common sense suggests, as one official told the Times in 1994, "if you put a barrier up on a bridge, that people won't die from that bridge. Even if barriers were installed, people could just go somewhere else." That's the same thing people said about the Golden Gate Bridge, until a landmark 1978 study proved otherwise..

Meanwhile, over at The Sun, comments are piling up over what can be done to prevent further student suicides. Opinions tend to fall within two camps: 1) that the University needs to be a better job of "protecting the gorges" through 24/7 security, higher railings, and camera surveillance, or, 2) that the gorges are not the problem, but that the University could try to do more to make certain that all students feel like they are a part of the greater Cornell community and have adequate on-campus support to deal with academic, social, family, or health pressures.

Longtime readers will no doubt surmise that I fall in the second camp. To me, the aesthetic appeal of the gorges and campus should not be sacrificed for perceived safety. (Although maybe covered bridges with windows would look pretty?) But I think it's clear that the diverse and dynamic nature of the student experience at Cornell makes it more of a challenge for some students to find their place on East Hill, and more supportive structures can be put in place to make the tricky road of late-stage adolescence more navigable for all. Cornell is not doing anything wrong, but it can be doing more right.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on March 15, 2010 (#)

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