On March 25, the Ithaca Journal ran a story saying a judge had recently ruled that Cornell University and the City of Ithaca could be sued for negligence around a suicide that happened at the campus in 2010. According to the document, 18-year-old Bradley Ginsburg was found dead in the Fall Creek gorge on Feb. 17, 2010, after reportedly jumping off of the Thurston Avenue bridge. Negligence claims for personal injury and conscious pain and suffering are being held against the university, and both the university and the city are facing negligence based on premises liability for wrongful death charges. By this charge, the city and the university are held liable for Ginsburg’s death because they both control and own the property where he died. However, Ginsburg wasn’t the only student to commit suicide at Cornell University. Within the same month, two other students also jumped to their deaths from bridges, and over 20 years the university saw more than 25 suicides on its campus, 15 of which were students.
Setting the Scene
When asked about how Ithaca College would handle such a lawsuit, Nancy Pringle, vice president and general counsel for
legal affairs at Ithaca College, said it would be difficult to determine exactly how it would proceed.
“I think you’d almost have to wait and see what the facts were around it,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any one answer, it would depend what the facts were, where it occurred. You’d have to look at a number of things.”
According to an article that ran in the Cornell Daily Sun, Federal Judge David Hurd ruled in favor of Ginsburg’s father, allowing him to proceed with the lawsuit. Hurd said because of the previous 29 suicides that had taken place on the seven bridges located on or near Cornell’s campus, the university should have had more foresight when doing renovations to come up with more suicide preventative measures. Greg Eells, director of counseling and psychological services at Cornell, said after the three suicides in 2010, the university brought in three world-renowned suicide experts to look at its mental health programs.
Eells said the main recommendation from the experts was means restriction, or to limit the ways in which students could commit suicide. Eells said according to the university’s own suicide data, 40 percent of its completed suicides were from jumping over the course of 25 years, which Eells said “is grossly disproportionate to what suicide methodologists across the country have said,” reporting that, nationally, only 1 percent of suicides are from jumping. The nets and fences were added as a response to the means restriction suggestion.
The Bigger Issue
It doesn’t take long to find outrage and animosity toward Cornell University about the suicide problem. If one were to go to any comments section on any major article about campus suicides, it’s very obvious that people want to know why this is happening. Eells said during the 2012–13 school year, CAPS saw about 3,600–3,700 students using its services.
“We work pretty hard to make our services as accessible as possible, and I think that’s always one of the challenges of counseling services at universities across the country is there does seem to be more demand,” he said. “No matter how many counselors you have, it seems like you could fill them up with students wanting to see a counselor.” According to a survey done by the Association for University and College Counseling Center Directors in June 2013, 95 percent of surveyed college counseling center directors reported having growing concerns with the number of students with significant psychological problems on their campus or in their center. Couple this with the 2011 data from the American College Health Association–National College Health Assessment that found 30 percent of college students reported feeling “so depressed that it was difficult to function,” 6 percent reported seriously considering suicide and 1 percent reported attempting suicide the pervious year, and one can see how Eells’ concern for the growing number of students seeking help from counselors is justified.
Mental Health Outreach
After Ginsburg and the other two students’ deaths in 2010, Eells said there was a campus-wide movement shortly after.
“In response to the third jumping death within a month, the residence halls engaged in a program — and other staff, some of our staff, and a few faculty members — volunteered to go around and just check on people,” he said. “It was a time of crisis.”
However, Eells said while this helped in the immediate sense, it wasn’t effective as a long-term outreach plan. Instead, the university has adopted a broad-based system to help faculty, staff and students learn how to address and speak to others who may be suffering from depression or distress.
“We’ve reached I think over two-thirds of the faculty here,” he said. “It’s broadening those conversations on a day-to-day sustained effort, your interactions, the messages that you have. … That goes beyond just that aspect of care, that it’s about shaping the culture and shaping the cultural expectations.”