After three suicides at the gorges in the past month, bringing the total number of suicides this academic year to six, Cornell University personnel find themselves trying to manage the sudden increase in student suicides and contest its reputation as a “suicide school.”
William Sinclair, 19, was killed after dropping from a footbridge on campus last Thursday, and Matthew Zika, 21, died in the same manner the following day. With the death of Bradley Ginsburg, 18, a month earlier, the Ithaca community is left asking why many students made the decision to take their own lives after having no suicides between 2005 and the beginning of this academic year.
Jennifer Streid-Mullen, executive director of the Tompkins County Suicide Prevention and Crisis Center, said calls from concerned students, parents worried about their children and Cornell alumni show the impact the most recent string of suicides has had on the community. But aside from shaking community members, recent events are stirring up suspicions that Cornell is a “suicide school,” a university characterized by a high volume of student suicides.
Rumors about Cornell suicides began in 1889 when Edward Wyckoff, an engineering student at the school, allegedly jumped into a ravine when his proposal for a bridge was failed by a professor, according to Rob Fishman, a Cornell alum, who wrote a Columbia University master’s thesis on Cornell suicide mythology. An article derived from Fishman’s thesis appeared last week in the Huffington Post. Though the suicide of Wyckoff never actually took place, as some urban legends attest, over the years groups of students have died in a similarly public fashion, by plunging into the ravines that crisscross the university’s campus.
Simeon Moss, press relations office director at Cornell, said the university saw 10 student suicides between 2000 and 2005 and six between 2006 and 2010; all six took place this academic year, but Moss declined to disclose the yearly breakdown of the other incidents. Once averaged, these rates fall within the national average — about 2 suicides for every 20,000 students. However, the most recent deaths are reminiscent of a string of six gorge deaths between 1977 and 1978 that forced administrators to declare a campus state of emergency and establish one of the first university suicide prevention programs, Fishman said.
The most popular method chosen by students at Cornell when taking their own lives — jumping — makes up only 10 percent of student suicides, according to a National Survey of Counseling Center Directors. These figures set Cornell apart from other universities.
“The main thing about the gorges at Cornell is it is very visible to the public,” Streid-Mullen said. “On most other college campuses, if someone commits suicide it is kept quiet; it is not as obvious to everybody.”
The suicides taking place on the Cornell campus, where the landscape appears to lend itself to these dramatic and public incidents, seem to be more susceptible than Ithaca College and other universities across the nation to what Dr. Gregory Eells, director of the Cornell Counseling Center, calls a “contagion effect.” The phenomenon, which Streid-Mullen said is supported by significant research, occurs when public attention glorifying a suicide actually encourages others who may have been contemplating suicide to follow suit. Streid-Mullen said knowledge of this fact seems to be propelling the university to take what may appear to be extreme measures.
“Everyone wants to make sure there isn’t another [suicide] in the near future,” Streid-Mullen said. “When people pay tribute to the person who committed suicide, the idea gets to sound appealing to people in their early 20s, almost like they did this beautiful swan dive and now every one thinks they’re great.”
When Cornell students filter back to campus following spring break next week, tall chain-link fences lining the footbridges and obscuring the view of the gorges below will greet them. The bridges littered with flowers and suicide hot line posters serve as a constant reminder of recent events.
Cornell senior Angel Rendon said it makes the issue hard for students to escape. Recently Rendon received word of the university’s decision to erect fences, which he describes as “eyesores” along footbridges.
“I can’t speak to whether or not the fences are the solution or if there is a solution, but I find it pretty telling that the university waited until everyone was home for spring break to do something like that,” Rendon said.
LeBron Rankins, psychologist at the Ithaca College Counseling Center, said the college keeps few records detailing student suicides and wouldn’t know how many students committed suicide at the gorges because the center does not keep track of off-campus incidents. In 2000, Ithaca College sophomore Sean Virmalo was found dead after an apparent fall into the Six Mile Creek Gorge. The case was not definitively ruled a suicide.
Andrew Baldinger, a junior engineering student at Cornell, said the presence of the gorges on campus give suicides at Cornell a different dynamic than other universities. Baldinger also said students know the bridges have been the site of suicides in the past and associate them with that concept.
“I guess it’s a pretty dramatic way to go,” Baldinger said. “It becomes an issue because [the gorges] make it so easy if you’re already thinking about suicide.”
Baldinger, who was in a class with Zika, said it was sobering to come to class Monday and notice that he wasn’t there. With many academic pressures, Baldinger said it is hard for some students in the engineering program to deal with even minor setbacks.
“A lot of people in this program were some of the smartest kids at their high school,” Baldinger said. “Noticing that isn’t the case here can be kind of shocking.”
Baldinger said situations are compounded by the dreariness of long Ithaca winters and a stigma associated with mental health disorders.
“Cornell tries to help by making counseling centers available to students, but I don’t think many people would actually seek out their services,” he said.
This attitude is not unique to students at Cornell. Rankins said the decision to get help often separates students who think about suicide and those who carry out these plans.
“A lot of students will think about suicide,” he said. “Some will go on to think seriously about suicide, and some with make an attempt. If they can talk to somebody, their level of anxiety diminishes.”
Gary Stewart, coordinator of the Campus Community Coalition, will hold an open meeting to address counseling services and mental health issues from 7 to 8:30 p.m. today in Ithaca High School.