How big of a problem is suicide on law school campuses? Recently, a suicide tragedy affected the UNC Law community. In December, a student at Michigan Law took his own life. And there have been sad and high-profile suicides in Biglaw too.
It’s impossible to assess the precise role the recession may have played in these recent tragedies. It’s a little too easy to blame everything on a shaky economy and uncertain job prospects. The thoughts that flash through the head of a person about to take his or her own life are deeply complicated .
The old platitudes — e.g., “if you are feeling overwhelmed, get help” — seem meaningless in the face of actual death.
It appears that some law school and university communities are taking more aggressive steps towards suicide prevention. At NYU and Cornell, officials are trying to limit access to potential suicide points on campus.
Are these steps necessary? More to the point, will these steps be effective?
A tipster explains the new steps NYU Law is taking to protect students from their own demons. Most people know that NYU has had a couple of very sad incidents in the past, and now the university is apparently ready to take additional action in the form of securing the campus:
The university’s crackdown was to declare that NO BALCONIES could hereinafter exist that were accessible by a gravity-prone member of the student body. This quickly metastasized into “no access to high places, period.” The first manifestation: locks were installed on all dorm windows, preventing them from opening more than about four inches. Then, the balconies in the two law school dorms were mysteriously “closed for the winter.” They were supposed to reopen for spring. They remain closed, and while the SBA tells us they’re working on a solution, it apparently involves some sort of horrific cage being built to keep (again) the gravity-prone from diving off of the ledges. Meanwhile, the rooms in the dorms that have private balconies have had them restricted, the 9th Floor of Furman is pretty much permanently off limits (not like the school ever used it anyway), etc…
NYU is so respectful of its student body that it has essentially childproofed (or is going to childproof) every high-up area on campus, and did so without bothering to inform the student body and without even being honest about why they were acting. Brilliant.
There are a couple of ways of looking at this policy, and I’ve got no idea which standpoint is most accurate:
* The good: NYU understands how stressed out people are, and they’re trying to do everything they can to protect the student body.
* The bad: NYU is taking cosmetic measures to secure campus when the only real estate the matters is the one square foot between the ears of a potential suicide victim.
* The ugly / cynical: NYU knows that there’s nothing they can do to stop suicides. The university is just sick of the bad press (and possible litigation) that can arise when students kills themselves on campus.
The last point kind of gnaws at me. If a person is resolved to committing suicide, is a locked balcony really going to stop them? If the administration really thinks it has a suicide problem, surely it should spend more resources on mental health outreach programs. The school is located in Manhattan; there is no shortage of high places around these parts.
But NYU isn’t alone in trying to change its physical space to make it less tempting to potential jumpers. Stereotypically, at least, Cornell University is a place that springs to mind when you think of campus suicides. Recently, the university added a very obvious barrier on the “suicide bridge” leading to the law school:
That’s a great deterrent for, I guess, the person who “casually” has suicidal thoughts. But it strikes me that a determined jumper could easily climb the fence.
Again, to the extent that these law school and university officials are sensing a serious problem with on-campus suicides, then they should be doing whatever it takes to make sure students are getting the help they need during these times of economic struggle. Fences and locks and cages may keep the occasional person on the ground, but they do nothing to alleviate the quiet torture of severe depression.
I hope NYU and Cornell want to get serious about suicide and depression. I hope that these physical changes are just the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I hope that underneath the surface, these communities are doing a lot more work to address these issues than constructing physical barriers.
UPDATE: Tipsters report that NYU Law decided to reinstate terrace access until the end of the semester. The catch? Uniformed guards will be placed on the terraces. But NYU Law will undergo more anti-suicide construction over the summer. From a school-wide email:
Beginning Monday, May 17, the terraces will be closed for the installation of the safety barriers, and they will re-open upon completion of the construction.
Meanwhile, commenters from Cornell want you to know that college students have been the victims of a some recent suicides, not law students. Is that supposed to mean that Cornell is not concerned about law student suicide? If Cornell is taking suicide prevention to the next level, one would hope that the school has more up it’s sleeve than fences and barricades.