The sun that reenergized most of campus last week didn’t shine on some of the people who needed it most. Last night – and the night before – emergency personnel searched for bodies at the bottom of Fall Creek gorge, adding two more names to a long list of deaths already experienced by the Cornell community this year. Suicides, illnesses, and accidents have swept across our campus during the past few months, shifting our collective notion of death from abstraction to reality, to a palpable weight in the air.
Throughout the past five years, nothing compares to the current situation at Cornell. Three suicides within the course of a month are bad enough, but they follow on the heels of several other tragedies that have yet to be forgotten. In sum, these deaths constitute a true crisis within the community – in themselves and in their cumulative impact on the rest of us, which will likely take months, maybe years to dissipate.
For me, the barrage of bad news began this Fall when architecture students received notice that one of our former classmates had unexpectedly died during an extended medical leave from the school. Though less dramatic than a death on campus, and only marginally publicized, we mourned it as a loss of one of our own. The Dean of our college sent out emails and the Daily Sun published a brief article. But the facts of the situation remained obscure. In each instance, the words “unexpected death” were used as a euphemism for “suicide.”
In the days that followed, my former classmate’s Facebook page turned into an active memorial to his life with comments and photos contributed by family and friends. Out of shock and curiosity, we looked at these things and tried to remember the kid that we once knew.
Every few days since then, I sign onto Facebook and see this kid’s profile picture on the website’s sidebar. With a brand of irony only available online, it suggests that I “reconnect” with him and offers me a hyperlink to his profile. Indeed, I can still send him a message, write on his wall, or tag him in photos. But, despite all this, there is one irrefutable fact about death that the Facebook algorithm fails to incorporate: I can’t RECONNECT with him! He is DEAD!
As the campus recoils from the most recent tragedies, our digital community seems more vibrant than the physical one. Facebook, among other online venues, is playing host to much of the raw emotion that cannot be contained in University statements and police reports. Several hundred students have already posted comments onto Matthew Zika’s Facebook page with expressions of loss, regret, and remembrance. Someone started a group called “No More Cornell Suicides” and it has attracted over 2,000 members in less than two days.
In many ways, it is easier to dwell in this virtual world during a time of grief than confront a challenging reality. But Facebook is a clumsy and shallow conduit for emotion. The banter characteristic of online forums cannot replace the many important conversations that need to occur on campus in the coming days. And online “friendships” serve as a poor substitute for the strong interpersonal bonds that tie our community together.
Still, things in the real world are rather bleak. The University has reacted forcefully to the final round of deaths by launching a number of initiatives, including an effort to guard the bridges on campus 24-hours a day. To do this effectively, security personnel must be stationed continuously at six different locations, which – if sustained – would mean about 1000 man-hours per week. I understand that these guards serve a practical purpose during a critical moment, but their message is unclear: Are we so unstable at Cornell that we need to be physically restrained from killing ourselves?
Despite the recent evidence, I don’t believe this is true. Before this year, Cornell had a suicide rate equal to or less than the national average. The main difference between Cornell and other institutions had less to do with the number of suicides and more to do with the visibility of them. A death on our campus rarely slips under the radar, and media outlets such as 60-Minutes have sensationalized the relatively unsensational numbers for years.
Despite these facts, I fear that people are increasingly willing to believe that suicide is the status quo at Cornell, and that it is the inevitable consequence of a competitive research institution like our own. In my opinion, the euphemistic statements and celebratory Facebook eulogies excuse – perhaps even romanticize – suicides at Cornell. And although the celebration of one’s life is a natural and necessary way to cope with death, it has the potential to invite future tragedies.
It is a documented phenomenon that the rate of suicides increases in the wake of others. Have we reached a tipping point where suicide is socially acceptable at Cornell? For God’s sake, I hope not. And, practically speaking, there is no reason why it should be. Over the coming weeks, the University will do everything possible to reverse the recent trend and ensure the health and wellness of the student body. I hope that, in doing so, Cornell comes to terms with the fact that suicide is not merely an “unexpected death.” It represents a personal and societal ailment that cannot (and should not) be attributed to topography.
I recommend that Cornell remove the security guards from the bridges and divert those resources to other community initiatives. The eeriness of their presence only perpetuates the problem. As students, we might consider signing off our computers for a moment to take stock of our situation — and that of our friends. It’s a nice day outside and Ithaca should be enjoyed, not feared.