Three Students Die in Cornell University Gorges

PHOTO In the last month, three male students have leapt or fallen from bridges that span the gorges, some of which plunge 200-feet deep. One death was ruled a suicide and two others are still being investigated.Courtesy Sarah Guilbert
A suspension bridge on the Conrell University campus is shown. In the last month, three male students have leapt or fallen from bridges that span the gorges, some of which plunge 200-feet deep. One death was ruled a suicide and two others are still being investigated.

The breathtaking gorges that cross-cross Cornell University's Ithaca, N.Y., campus are a large part of why students are drawn to this Ivy-League school -- but they also have a dark side.

In the last month, three students have leapt or fallen from bridges -- a phenomenon known as "gorging," some plunging 200 feet deep. One death was ruled a suicide and two others are still being investigated.

"This is the most beautiful part of Cornell and what it is known for, essentially waterfalls flowing through carved rock," said Sarah Guilbert, 20, and a nutritional science major from Hightstown, N.J. "I think it's terrible that it's associated with tragedy.


"We walk over the bridges two to three times almost every day," she said. "When we want to get into town, you go over one of them, and the other one where someone jumped near one of the sororities."

The first body, a freshman, was found Feb. 17 in Fall Creek Gorge, according to the student newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun. Cornell officials said the young man's death was ruled a suicide.

Then last week, two more bodies were found in the same gorge. The first, a sophomore, was found March 11 under the Thurston Avenue Bridge. The next day, a junior was found near the suspension bridge at the same gorge.

Video: Teens use local train tracks to commit suicide.Play

In this academic year alone, 10 students have died from a variety of causes: suicide, accidents and cancer.

"Multiple tragedies have affected this campus in a short amount of time," said Timothy Marchell, who is director of Cornell's mental health initiatives.

"It all takes a toll," he said. "You always know with a population of 20,000 every year you will lose some of our students to suicide or accidents. But these numbers have been out of proportion."

With mid-term exams approaching and spring break starting Saturday, faculty and students have been shaken by the deaths.

A Facebook group was established, calling for "No More Cornell Suicides." The Sun reported that signs saying, "Smile," and "Your prelim grade isn't as bad as being mauled by a bear," appeared on bridge railings.

Security personnel have been placed at the three bridges, student resident assistants have gone door-to-door, knocking on dorm rooms to offer consolation, and the mental health center is waging a multi-media education and prevention campaign.

"We want to create a sense of reassurance for all members of the community, those who are vulnerable and those who are traumatized from taking serious risks," Marchell said.

Counseling Services Offered

"Loss of life is palpable here," vice president for student and academic services Susan Murphy said in a video posted on a new campus Web site, Caring Community, which offers mental health resources.

Counseling services were expanded to the weekend.

"We know our gorges … can be scary places at times like these," she said.

Accidents are not uncommon. Students jump into the water in the summer, according to Guilbert. In fact, a classmate from her high school, 23-year-old Keith O'Donnell, died of head injuries in a fall at Cascadilla Gorge in 2007.

Cornell officials said there was another accidental drowning in the gorge in 2008, but the last suicide there was in 2001.

The university said it averages one to two student suicide deaths a year, but most are not in the gorge.

"The incidence of suicides, even though each one is tragic, is relatively small numerically," said Marchell. "We see ups and downs each year."

Some students point to Cornell's reputation as an academic pressure cooker and its gloomy, unending precipitation.

Guilbert's older brother Stephen, 21, serves as a resident advisor in the dorms and said "tensions and concerns are high." His role has been to help keep an eye on students and their spirits.

"Cornell is a hard school," he said. "This time of year, almost every class tries to get in their last large assignment before spring break and it weighs on students. The atmosphere here is very tense this time of year and although the school offers excellent counseling services, some students who find the pressure too great to handle and lack support from back home find a solution in the bottom of the gorge."

Marchell agrees Cornell is an academically rigorous place, but said the university's stigma as a suicide center is just not accurate.

Even though the gorges have become a "destination" for out-of-town jumpers, "there is no affiliation with Cornell and it just reinforces the misperception," he said.

John Draper, a psychologist and project director for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said Cornell has no more suicides than any other university.

"When you commit suicide in public places, so many people bear witness to it and it becomes an explanation point that people live to remember," Draper said.

"It may give the impression that it happens more often, but suicide bridges happen more often at Cornell than at other schools," he said.

Therefore, the university must focus on the "means" and reduce access to bridges and suicide points.

"There is clear evidence that barriers and bars can reduce suicides," he said.

"People say that if you put bars, they will want to go kill themselves somewhere else, but that's a myth," he said.

Such efforts have been successful at bridges like the Viaduct in Toronto, Duke Ellington in Washington, D.C., Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine, and the suspension bridge in Bristol, England.

More Think Suicide Than Do It

Roughly 26,000 college students in the United States have thought about suicide at least once during their lifetime, according to a 2006 Web-based survey conducted by the National Research Consortium of Counseling Centers in Higher Education.

An estimated 15 percent had seriously considered an attempt and more than 5 percent had actually tried to commit suicide, the study found. The study suggested that at any college with 18,000 students, nearly 1,100 would think about an attempt.

But the number of students who actually carry out suicide is much lower.

One Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Organization survey last year noted that more than 8 million Americans thought about suicide, but only about 900,000 actually tried.

"Even people who to all eyes and ears seem hell-bent on suicide have an amazing degree of ambivalence to their core the moment they try to kill themselves," Draper said. "You see a number of people make highly lethal attempts, barely conscious, and when they are conscious, they say, 'Please save me.'"

Those who talk about suicide need "time, support and help when they are in this transient state," he said.

College students are particularly vulnerable, and Cornell is now taking a comprehensive look at its suicide prevention programs.

"One of the things we know about adolescents and young adults, is the decisions they make about things like suicide are often impulsive," Cornell's Marchell said. "That's why it's so important to prepare the community to recognze the signs."

Students, faculty and even parents have been engaged in discussions.

"People are stunned and deeply saddened, but at the same time, we've grown as community," he said. "The response to all of this, is that we are in this together."