Cornell student suicides: a troublesome trend

photograph of a deep gorge, like the ones near Cornell University

The gorges that dot Cornell's campus now have guards posted on the bridges. Image from Flickr.

In the last seven months, upstate New York college Cornell University has had six suspected student suicides. For a school that reported no suicides from 2005 to 2008, this recent spate of student deaths is very troubling. Administrators at Cornell are approaching the suicide problem head-on, providing money now for increased student counseling and staff training.

Student suicides at Cornell

As CNN reports, the average suicide rate for college students is about 7.29 suicides per every 100,000 students. Cornell university has about 20,000 students – so statistics indicate the school would have 1 or 2 suicides each year.

During the 1990s, Cornell had eight student suicides in 10 years, which still fell well below the national average. Theories as to why this year has been particularly bad for student suicides at Cornell abound, including the availability of “The Gorges”, the copy-cat effect and the general darkness of Ithica during the months of March and April.

How Cornell University is responding

Cornell University is not taking the recent student suicides lightly. Since the last spate of suicides in the 1990s, Cornell has instituted many programs designed to help treat and prevent depression and suicide. The previously-cited CNN report highlights:

The school has been praised by psychologists such as Keith Anderson, chairman of the American College Health Association’s Mental Health Best Practices Task Force, for counseling and prevention programs that confront the issue of student suicide with comprehensive training and understanding.

Cornell has also placed guards at the Gorges, where most of the student suicides have happened. Cornell’s gorges are famous, and the bridges across them often seem to invite rash action. As the Atlantic Wire points out, this simple act of placing guards on the bridges may help prevent more suicides, as 90 percent of people that attempt suicide but are stopped do not later commit suicide, but instead get treatment or help.

Student suicide is an issue beyond Cornell

According to a suicide.org report, suicide is the second leading cause of death for college students. A 2008 World Health Organization World Mental Health Survey Initiative found that more than half of U.S. college students have, at some point, contemplated suicide – in comparison to 15.3 percent of all Americans.

The reasons for these high numbers are wide-ranging, though it usually comes down to the fact that students are put in a very high-stress, isolated situation. Often away from home for the first time and being challenged academically and socially, students often engage in high risk behaviors – such as drinking, overusing credit cards, skipping sleep and trying drugs. All of these high-risk behaviors have been linked to a higher instance of suicide attempts.

Building a better college community

The high instance of suicides and suicidal thoughts at all colleges, not just Cornell University, has been an issue for years. The isolation many college students feel is often the starting point for many of the high-risk behaviors that college students engage in. Some commentators feel that the focus needs to be more on “promoting life” rather then “preventing suicide” – creating communities that are connected and interactive to help improve student’s mental health on campus. However, with budgets of private and public universities being cut across the country, it is a difficult balancing act for all colleges, universities and educational institutions – not just Cornell.

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