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Cornell's Suicide Bridge Problem

Not to turn this humble blog towards all-suicide, all-the-time coverage, but I recently came across some additional statistics on suicides at Cornell and in Tompkins County. This follows Susan Murphy's public statements that the Ithaca Journal covered last month. Taken in full, I believe the statistics point to the fact that aside from the tragic cluster that occurred this spring which required a large response by the administration, Cornell still doesn't have a suicide problem, it has a bridge problem.

* Between 1990 and 2010, there were 29 gorge-related suicide or suicide attempts in Tompkins County. Of those 29, 15 were college students (14 at Cornell, 1 at Ithaca College), and 4 were not residents of the county. 1 of the 10 community member deaths was a student on leave from Cornell.

* Of the 14 above-mentioned Cornell students, 2 Cornell students attempted suicide by jumping into the gorge but survived the fall.

* Between 1990 and 2010 there were 166 suicides total. That means 16% of all Tompkins County suicides by gorge.

* Of the 27 gorge-related deaths, only one was not by a bridge.

* Between 1990 and 2010, Cornell registered a total of 25 student suicides. That number includes the six in the past year, yielding a rate of 1.25 a year, or 6.25 for every 100,000 student-years. Of course, prior to this year's cluster, Cornell's suicide rate was below 5 for every 100,000 students. This compares to the U.S. national suicide rate of 10 per 100,000 per year for individuals aged 15-24, and the Big Ten study's findings of 7.5 per 100,000 students which is traditionally treated as the national norm for college students.

* 48 percent of all Cornell student suicides have occurred by jumping into the gorges.

I think that last statistic is the most damning and really helps to serve the mythology that surrounds Cornell's suicide rate. One out of every two Cornell suicides happens in a very public setting for the entire world to see. By contrast, only 2 percent of suicides across the country occur due to a fall.

That means that Cornell's suicides are 25 times more likely to be publicly viewable than the national average! If somebody hangs themselves, overdoses on pain killers, or even uses a fire-arm to take their own life, as is the case at most other colleges, by its very nature it will be a lot less public than the types of intensely public tragedies (complete with exhausting media coverage) that Cornell students have to cope with. Most college campuses don't require emergency responders to rappel 100 feet into a gorge to retrieve a student's body. And, of course, they don't subsequently have thousands of students walk past the place where a student took their own life every day for the rest of the semester.

The second question, of course, is whether or not Cornell will limit the number of suicides on campus by erecting more effective (and more aesthetically pleasing) bridge barriers. Research indicates that the barriers will at the very least deter such public suicide, and the studies are hopeful that young adults are the most responsive to means-restriction approaches, as they are the most likely to commit suicide impulsively.

Matthew Nagowski | Posted on August 06, 2010 (#)

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