Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Are suicides a crime of opportunity? Cornell's sixth suicide this academic year raises troubling questions

A Cornell student jumped to his death on Friday, immediately following a similar jumping death on Thursday, marking Cornell's fifth and sixth suicides this academic year. Gawker asks if Cornell's unusual terrain is playing a role in the tragedy: the college's campus is sliced through by scenic gorges filled with rushing water and craggy rocks, bridges hanging overhead.  Although prior to this particularly bad year, there had not been a suicide at Cornell since 2005, some wonder whether the opportunity provided by the treacherous gorges and accompanying bridges make Cornell students more likely to complete an act of suicide, whereas a less...rugged...campus might provide a student enough thinking time to seek help.

Gawker points to an article from the Times Magazine (that I consider a must-read), which discusses the opportunistic nature of suicide:
In 2008, Scott Anderson wrote about jumping suicides for the New York Times Magazine, and used two stories to make his point: First, "the British coal-gas story." In the late 1950s, "sticking one's head in the oven" was Great Britain's most frequent suicide method, accounting for nearly half of the nation's suicides. In the 1970s, an aggressive campaign to reduce pollution virtually eliminated coal gas use. At the same time, the suicide rate depleted by one third, and stayed there. The conclusion: Access to impulsive suicide methods is directly related to suicide rates. "The execution chamber in everyone's kitchen" apparently made a difference.
Anderson offers a similar story regarding erecting barriers to prevent people from jumping off bridges.  One bridge in Washington DC, the Ellington, had a disproportionate number of suicides.  In 1985, lawmakers proposed erecting a barrier, but dissenters claimed jumpers could just as easily head to the Taft less than a block away.  Once the barrier was erected, though, jumpers did not go to the Taft.  Suicides off the Ellington dropped to zero, and the Taft's numbers remained virtually unchanged. 
One study done by Richard Seidan in the 70s followed 515 people who had been thwarted from jumping off the Golden Gate bridge.  Just 6% went on to kill themselves.  From the Times article:
“At the risk of stating the obvious,” Seiden said, “people who attempt suicide aren’t thinking clearly. They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B. They get fixated. They don’t say, ‘Well, I can’t jump, so now I’m going to go shoot myself.’ And that fixation extends to whatever method they’ve chosen. They decide they’re going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge, or maybe they decide that when they get there, but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don’t look around for another place to do it. They just retreat.”
Anderson also speaks with would-be jumpers who survive, yeilding this haunting quote:
“I’ll tell you what I can’t get out of my head: It’s watching my hands come off that railing and thinking to myself, My God, what have I just done? Because I know that almost everyone else who’s gone off that bridge, they had that exact same thought at that moment. All of a sudden, they didn’t want to die, but it was too late.”
In 1994, a similar story about the high rates of Cornell suicides was in the NYTimes, and administrators were debating installing a chain-link barrier underneath the bridges:
The death came only two days after the Legislative Council of the City of Ithaca discussed plans to install netlike chain-link safety barriers about 15 feet under the five bridges on campus that cross the gorges. The idea was proposed by Dan Slattery, an Ithaca police officer.   "I sincerely believe people that many of the accidental falls and some suicides that have occurred in our gorges could have been avoided if barriers had been installed," Officer Slattery said at the meeting three days ago.
But others, noting that the two most recent deaths in the gorges did not take place near the campus bridges, said the barriers would have little effect.   "All we know for sure is if you put a barrier up on a bridge, that people won't die from that bridge," said Nancy Rosen, the executive director of the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center in Ithaca. "Even if barriers were installed, people could just go somewhere else."
They could, but research tells us they probably wouldn't.

[via Gawker]

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