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Sunday, March 14, 2010

Sad Days at Cornell

Three students have committed suicide on the Cornell campus recently, including two last week, by jumping from bridges over the numerous gorges which run through campus.

The mood is somber.

We need to do a better job helping students keep life in perspective.

We place so much pressure on our young people to achieve at an early age. When I was in high school, college was viewed as a place to find oneself. Now, we expect high schoolers to know exactly what they want to do, and by the time they get to college, the pressure can be enormous.

There never really is a satisfying explanation when a young person commits suicide. But we need to look as much at ourselves and the educational system we have created, as at the particular student.

Update 3-17-2010: Here is a very interesting history of suicide at Cornell. The net-net is that while Cornell does not exceed national averages, the nature of the gorges makes the suicides more visible, leading to the mythology that Cornell has a high suicide rate.

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  1. That is terrible news. Suicide reflects such utter despair and complete lack of hope...

    "We place so much pressure on our young people to achieve at an early age. When I was in high school, college was viewed as a place to find oneself. Now, we expect high schoolers to know exactly what they want to do, and by the time they get to college, the pressure can be enormous."

    Very true.

    We also expect small children to grow up so quickly in some ways exposing them to rather adult concerns so young, and then we expect young adults to be so immature at the same time ("30 is the new 20," etc.). I don't know. Maybe this has nothing to do with anything. But it's what I thought of.

  2. I just don't know. The how and why of checking out so early is beyond me. As daunting as college challenges may be, the world lies ahead. Get some of it before you make the call.
    Ithaca can be a dreary place, but it can't end there.
    Remarkably sad. I've no idea how the families will find peace.

  3. I have often wondered what could be so bad in life that death seems like an answer.

    I have had a few friends who have lost children to suicide, one a young person and the other 40 years old. In both cases, their marriages were ending.

    I have heard before that man is the only animal that commits suicide.

    I do not believe it is any one person or institution's fault, but a combination of things, and the suicidal person is not coping with something and the rest of us are sometimes too busy to notice signs.

    A mortician told me once that the signs for a young person contemplating suicide are sometimes evident: changing school performance, giving away personal items, personality changes, which are hard to distinguish from normal moody teemage behavior.

  4. Just wondering what the role of acne treatment of last resort - Accutane - on these suicides.

  5. I believe your statement "we need...to look at our educational system" is the key here.

    I live next to one of the top ten public universities in the nation. Suicide by various means happens here and each time it does, it seems somewhere there is an element of "the pressure was just too great." I see it in the young people who board at my home. I have had alcoholics/drug addicts who left school, young people having nervous breakdowns, etc. There is no fun in any of school anymore just study and drink to forget.

    With scholarship dollars getting fewer, the pressure will grow only more intense.

    I had to leave a major womens' college in 1962 due to my father's terminal illness and my upset over it. I remember the school doctor, a woman as a matter of fact, saying to me "not all people have to finish college in 4 consecutive years." Now at the time, this was news I could use because in those days, that was the drill. I wish the world were structured more like the 60s today because then, things were kind of freeing up. I came back to college later, better prepared and got better grades but no everyone has that luxury.

    Perhaps a mandatory year off between high school and college - a work time not even connected with your field - would help lend perspective. Then, when in school under that pressure,your experience in the real realm would sustain your growing perspective on things.

    Still, somehow, we have to take some of the pressure off. It is as if everyone is in med school now. Never an off moment - up all night. Sleep deprivation only exacerbates an emotional loss of balance if one is lurking.

    We need to put fun back in college beyond team sports. Relaxation 101 should be required! Seriously, perhaps we need a Freshman course that is mandatory that incorporates how to use reference sources; good study habits; how to adapt to student life and who to see on campus when you cannot and how to have some off-campus and on-campus fun while here! This is a former librarian/information scientist speaking and I believe the right information at the right time could help. Bright kids can get themselves out of trouble when they have the tools to do so and we need to give them those tools.

  6. PS

    We forget that no matter how brilliant, students who land at college may not have time management skills and know about truly good study habits. In having a class rather than an orientation period about it, it will be time well spent. It will give them time to fill in their gaps - ones that may keep them alive.

  7. It is not just society that expects so much from some so young, it is colleges too.The competition those young people are under to acheive is way beyond healthy. When you have a person who has issues take away structure, support and adult supervision, disaster strikes. Not only Cornell, but colleges in general need to do a better job of policing their student body and getting those in danger some help. They might start by informing parents when there are problems no matter what the student says. They send us the tuition bill they should let us know when our babies are in trouble so we can step in and help. It is time colleges accepted their own complicity in these traumas and fix the system and protect those in their care.

  8. Cornell markets itself as a very highly competitive institution and as a gateway to the economic and political elites that run the US. Cornell itself clearly is part of the problem and bears some responsibility in these suicides. It may, in fact, bear most of the responsibility.

    By the way, Cornell is not a faceless machine. Those responsible for the suicides include the faculty.

  9. I went to Cornell as an undergrad. Yes, there is a lot of pressure. It is also difficult to be away from home, unsupervised, for the first time. There are a lot of choices to be made -- academic and social. And don't underestimate the gray/cold/wet weather to bring people down.

    But these are all adults. Blaming faculty and the institution for individuals' suicides is not fair. Even back in the 90s, Cornell was very good about educating its students about the mental health resources available to them. Institutions do not cause depression. Depression is a pernicious and dangerous illness.

    What exactly, sykes.1, do you propose that Cornell do?

  10. At Cornell?

    Yeah. Life's a drag when you're young, relatively rich, or got a scholarship, have a high IQ, and a full life ahead of you in fairly much any realm you'd like to test.