Cornell's Suicide Problem: Invented by Journalists?

by Samantha Henig

CORNELL'S SUICIDE PROBLEM. That's the description that blared across the bottom of CNN during this morning's segment about the university installing fences to deter people from jumping into the gorge. Actually, CNN, it's not a suicide problem so much as a media problem—a problem stemming from outlets like yours that are quick to spread the myth that Cornell is the "suicide school."

The New York Times is guilty, too. After the third Cornell suicide in less than a month, the Times ran a front-page story that said the university was on "high alert about the mental health of its students" and that the recent deaths "have cast a pall over the university and revived talk of Cornell's reputation—unsupported, say officials—as a high-stress 'suicide school.'" But it's not until deep into the jump, on A-25, that the article addresses the actual statistics, which indicate that Cornell's rate of suicides is no higher than the national average for a university of that size (about two a year). Other high-pressure colleges have more troubling numbers to contend with. MIT's suicide rate since 1964, when the university started keeping track, is about 14.6 per 100,000 students, according to an article in MIT's student newspaper, The Tech, compared to about 4.3 per 100,000 over the same time period at Cornell. And although the recent clustering of Cornell suicides is tragic and noteworthy, it comes on the heels of four years without a single one. But the suicide-free years don't make headlines; jumpers do.

Granted, I'm a proud Cornell alumna, so I'm particularly sensitive about these misconceptions. But I like to think I'm relatively objective about my alma mater. (My bracket had them beating Temple, yes, but not Wisconsin.) Cornell suicides, when they occur, tend to be dramatic. They get national media attention with scary images like the ones CNN was flashing today of guys in neon vests patrolling the campus bridges. The idea of a stressed-out undergrad hurling himself into a cavernous gorge—it's chilling, and it stays with you. So much so that you probably remember it as more inflated a problem than it actually is. Individuals can't be faulted for that—our brains do funny things with anecdotal evidence. But media outlets are different, and should be found at fault when they fan these misconceptions.

Samantha Henig is a NEWSWEEK associate editor.