Community Responds to Cornell Suicides

In the wake of three apparent suicides at Cornell University in the past six weeks, members of the mental health community at Harvard reaffirmed their commitment to providing support for students at risk but disagreed on the need to take immediate steps in response.

The Cornell community was rocked two weeks ago when sophomore William Sinclair and junior Matthew Zika took their lives on consecutive days by jumping into the gorges that run through the campus in Ithaca, New York. The deaths came only a few weeks after freshman Bradley Ginsburg apparently died in the same manner.

“It’s honestly a very scary phenomenon,” said Paul J. Barreira, director of Behavioral Health and Academic Counseling for University Health Services. “I think it only proves the point that you can have a terrific suicide prevention program and a terrific campaign to care for the community, but this phenomenon can happen anyway.”

A total of six students have committed suicide at Cornell this year, while national statistics would predict about two suicides annually within Cornell’s student population of 20,000, according to comments made by Cornell Mental Health Initiatives Director Timothy Marchell to The New York Times. Between 2000 and 2009, though, the number of suicides at Cornell was at or below the national average.

According to Barreira, a situation like the one at Cornell is known as a “suicide contagion,” a period in which multiple individuals take their own lives. But he said that there is no evidence that a suicide contagion at one university could lead to a similar event at another institution.

Nonetheless, Barreira added that he plans to coordinate with residential life staff and student mental health groups in order to ensure that everyone is “more alert and more mindful” in the aftermath of the Cornell suicides. He also said that UHS will continue its efforts to educate students about how to help their depressed peers, and will be distributing its biennial health assessment survey starting today.

The Student Mental Health Liaisons—a group that coordinates with UHS and House wellness tutors to educate students about mental health resources—will likely discuss the Cornell suicides at its next meeting, said Lianna E. G. Karp ’10, one of its members. Additionally, the group may consider holding a Suicide Gatekeeper training event to teach students how to recognize signs of life-threatening depression in the coming weeks, Karp said.

“Given the difficult situation that Cornell is facing now, I think it would be appropriate for us to bring it up and have it inform our decision as to the types of activities that we will be holding on campus,” Karp said.

But Erin R. Carey, a wellness tutor in Pforzheimer House, said she has not perceived any impact of the suicides at Cornell on Harvard students.

“I haven’t heard any chatter about it in the dining hall or on our open list,” Carey said.

—Staff writer Evan T. R. Rosenman can be reached at