Ithaca is Gorges. The slogan has been plastered across T-shirts, buttons, sweatpants, bumper stickers and posters. It has been the template for similar statements, such as Ithaca is Cold, Ithaca is Wine and any other word that a group finds fitting for the area.
Now, it is the inspiration for a new slogan that has become increasingly popular in town: Ithaca is FENCES. The slogan is used by a group in Ithaca who goes by the same name, and can be seen on stickers as well as on their online campaign website. The campaign was created to air concerns after Cornell University put up silver chain link fences on all of the campus bridges in order to try and prevent jumping suicides from occurring.
During the 2002-2010 academic years, six enrolled Cornell students died due to suicide, three of which were from jumping. The cause for alarm on Cornell's part was due to the time frame for the three jumping deaths. They all occurred by jumping from bridges over Fall Creek Gorge in a four-week period in 2010. Two jumped from the Thurston Avenue Bridge, and one from the Suspension Bridge.
In an effort to prevent further attempts, Cornell placed safety personnel on all bridges and began to consult suicide experts in order to determine what would be the best approach in order to prevent further jumping suicides.
"These experts indicated that the six suicides constituted a statistically significant suicide ‘cluster,' and that pattern of jumping deaths was consistent with a phenomenon referred to as suicide contagion in which there is an imitative element to the suicides," Tim Marchell, the director of mental health initiatives at Cornell, said.
Based on their talks with these personnel, Cornell began to look towards options for means restrictions for the bridges.
After the second set of fences were put up, a few members of the community who were upset over the intrusion started an online campaign called Ithaca is FENCES. The campaign was first started anonymously in August 2010 when the creators felt the fences were no longer temporary. The anonymous campaign came to an end in January 2011 when the group decided to take their concerns to Ithaca's Common Council.
"We started the campaign because nobody was talking about the issue and it looked like it was just a Cornell plan that would be pushed through Common Council, so we started the anonymous campaign to see if anyone else opposed the fences, and it appeared that a lot of people were," Heather Bissel, spokesperson for Ithaca is FENCES, said.
According to Bissel, she speaks on behalf of roughly 600 community members who are opposed to having fences as well as any barrier on the bridge. The presentation of means restrictions is creating mixed feelings among some individuals, who are bringing up issues such as discrepancies in Cornell's research, as well as their belief that the establishment of bridges or nets will result in site or means substitution for those seeking death.
Cornell is not a stranger to the concept of suicide barriers for the bridges. On May 25, 1977, a man appeared before the Board of Public Works and urged them to consider erecting suicide barriers on several of the city's bridges after his daughter leaped to her death in March of 1977. This speech is what sparked interest in the city, as well as Cornell, to look into constructing a type of barrier around the Suspension Bridge on Cornell's campus. The fence they built still stands today, and is a part of the redesign process Cornell is looking to partake in.
According to Cornell University Architect Gilbert Delgado, the school hastily constructed fences on the other campus bridges in order to stop any additional jumping suicides.
"We had a series of incidents on campus that caused us to seek a way to stop what was going on," Delgado said. "For that reason, in the course of a week, we put up the silver chain-link fences to basically figure out what was going on."
According to Delgado, after constructing fences, the university reached out to three researchers in the field of suicide, and sought their advice in terms of what to do.
"One of the things they concluded that would be very effective is this idea of means restriction, of limiting access to the use of bridges for acts of suicides," he said.
Delgado said the university knew they couldn't leave the chain link fences up, so while they worked on design plans with NADAAA, an architecture firm out of Boston, they put up the sturdier thin black fences that are currently on some of the bridges.
"We heard that people thought these were better, but they still wanted them to be replaced at some point," he said. "So we began this design process, and we developed a very public outreach of the design process because we knew it had a lot of sensitivities with the public."
Based on public comments and a feeling of dissatisfaction with any type of fence, Cornell began to look towards the use of horizontal nets, resulting in the final schematic designs sent to the city.
With the introduction of horizontal nets, the views of the gorges would be preserved, for the most part, but the question of whether or not means restriction is necessary is a question being asked by Ithaca is FENCES, as well as other members of the community.
Based on research conducted over the past year by Tim Marchell, director of mental health initiatives at Cornell, there were 30 jumping deaths from bridges in the area between 1990 and 2010. Of those 30, 27 died and three lived. From the 27 deaths, 13 were Cornell students, one was an Ithaca College student and 13 were non-students. From the three who lived, two were Cornell students and one was a non-student.
While it is obvious that the bridges are being used to commit suicide, Ithaca is FENCES spokesperson Heather Bissel said that constructing fences or nets is a waste of resources when the area, as well as Cornell, is below the national average for suicides.
"We agree that last year was a lot of people for the population, but overall it is a statistical anomaly," she said.
The national average for suicides is 7.5 out of every 100,000 college students and 12.5 for every 100,000 people ages 20 to 24. When factoring in the size of the Cornell community, they are hovering around 1.2 a year, which is below an expected average of 1.3.
Even though the number of total suicides is below the national average, Marchell doesn't feel that being below the average means there should be no response to the deaths.
"It's important that we do whatever we can to prevent as many deaths as possible," he said. "Just because we are at the average doesn't mean we shouldn't continue to do whatever we can to prevent these tragedies that devastate families and friends."
In addition to concerns over necessity, opponents to the fences and nets are concerned about whether the establishment of barriers will be effective. Bissel said the group does not want any type of barrier constructed because "the science just doesn't support suicide barriers as an effective means as reducing suicide in any area."
One study that Bissel is referring to is the Bloor Street Viaduct study from Toronto. Cornell and Ithaca is FENCES members consistently reference the study, but are hung up on which aspects of the study to focus on.
In the case of the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto, the area became known as a common suicide location, and led to the city constructing a barrier in 2003. The bridge had the second most suicides of any bridge in North America (with the Golden Gate Bridge being first). There was an average of 9 suicides per year at the Viaduct before, but something previously unconsidered occurred after the construction of the barrier. According to the study by Mark Sinyor and Anthony Levitt, the barrier prevented suicides from occurring at the Bloor Street Viaduct, but the number of overall jumping deaths in Toronto remained unchanged. Rather than preventing deaths, people went to another location.
"We oppose the proposed suicide nets because there is no evidence that they will save lives," Bissel said. "The only message suicide nets send is ‘Go away, move on, don't kill yourself here, we don't want to see it.'"
Lee-Ellen Marvin, executive director for Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services in Ithaca, said she was unable relate the Toronto study to Tompkins County due to the differences in location.
"In a huge city like Toronto, fences and nets wouldn't make a difference," she said "The viaduct had become attractive for people with thoughts of suicide, but in Ithaca, we have a lot of bridges and they're well known in our minds. There isn't a single attractive bridge, so I don't think you can compare Toronto with Tompkins County."
Daniel Jost, a writer and editor for Landscape Architecture Magazine, as well as a Class of 2005 graduate from Cornell, said that his issue with the fences and nets is not about whether or not they are necessary, but rather if they are just going to make the issue worse.
"I believe we can help suicidal people, and when we have the resources to do so, we should, but the best evidence available today suggests a barrier will not stop people from killing themselves if other jumping sites are available nearby, and there are going to be gorges just a few feet from the barriers," Jost said.
In terms of the Bloor Street Viaduct study, Jost said this study represents the potential problems that could be seen in Ithaca.
"People who would have probably jumped from the Bloor Street Viaduct in the past went on to jump from nearby sites instead and there was no change in Toronto's jumping suicide rate," he said.
Jost has also looked closely at another research paper that Cornell is using to support their vision of barriers. In Switzerland, Thomas Reisch and Konrad Michel released a study entitled, "Securing a Suicide Hot Spot: Effects of a Safety Net at the Bern Muenster Terrace."
Based on his research on the study, Jost determined that the use of nets at the Bern Muenster Terrace were not as effective as they should have been.
"[The study] showed no significant reduction in jumping suicides in Bern, Switzerland after a barrier went up on the city's iconic suicide bridge," he wrote in an article for the website MetaEzra. "There were 45 jumping suicides per year in Bern in the 4 years before a barrier went up and 44 jumping suicides in Bern in the four years after the barrier went up. Had the barrier worked, one might have expected roughly 35."
The idea that jumping suicides will lead to location substitution was addressed by Cornell, and is their reasoning for approaching the city regarding constructing nets under three city owned bridges in addition to four owned by the university.
"What the authors concluded was that barriers may not reduce the overall number of jumping deaths if, in the area, if there are comparable bridges nearby," Marchell said. "This is an important finding for Ithaca because the three researchers said that since suicides have been dispersed around the East Hill bridges, and there wasn't one bridge that was attractive for suicides, that they advised us to treat all the bridges collectively as a single iconic location, which is why we proposed to employ means restriction on multiple bridges."
Despite the nets under all high area bridges, there is still concern regarding opportunities to jump from other locations, such as the side of the gorges and from waterfalls, such as Taughannock Falls.
"Tine Rubow jumped to her death [at Taughannock] shortly after graduating from Cornell in December," Jost wrote in his article. "A single death does not prove anything. But combined with our knowledge of the studies above, it should give pause to those who say the lack of suicides at Cornell in the past few months prove the fences will save lives."
An idea that is shared between both sides is that means restriction can only go so far. The idea of restricting ways of suicide can be seen all around, such as firearm laws down to the common rule of keeping all chemicals locked in cabinets. While taking the tools away from individuals may buy time, it doesn't guarantee help.
Ithaca is FENCES wants to see a switch from a focus on physical barriers to a focus on offering mental health services to the entire community. This would include having call boxes on site with signs that say, "When it seems like there's no hope, there's help," as well as additional lights and suicide patrols.
Marchell agrees and said that "suicide prevention requires a comprehensive approach including educating the community about the signs of distress, providing treatment for those with mental health problems, and reducing access to highly lethal means of suicide."
"Clinical services are vital but not sufficient since most individuals who kill themselves never make it into counseling," Marchell said. "Since jumps from bridges are a highly lethal method of suicide and pose a significant risk of imitation, it's critical to prevent them."
Marvin said that having phones and signs are a good idea in addition to barriers, but are not effective on their own.
"What happens is that people get caught in a tunnel vision about wanting to die, and a sign on a bridge that says, ‘don't jump call help,' isn't going to help them," she said. "They won't be reading signs at that point. But they may see a barrier and say, ‘what am I doing here, what is this about?' And that's the point where they may notice a sign or phone."
According to Marchell, most individuals who try and commit suicide have not reached out for help, and therefore there is nobody to talk them through their issues prior to the attempt. Marvin repeated this, saying that constructing a barrier "may buy them at least a day if not two or three weeks, if not a long healthy life."
Cornell is also trying to address the concern of impulse jumping.
"Dying is so scary, even for someone who is really struggling with mental health issues. It seems that many people rehearse what they're going to do and how," Marvin said. "If somebody has rehearsed dying at a bridge, and they can't, then that's likely to instill more thoughts of, ‘what am I doing here?' They might then stop in their tracks and look for help."
What Happens Now?
Cornell submitted seven different schematic designs to the city on May 31 with their idea to construct horizontal nets underneath six bridges, as well as vertical tensile mesh around the campus suspension bridge, moving away from their initial bar system design. Each design is stand alone, for three of the bridges are owned by the City of Ithaca and four by Cornell.
In a letter to city committee members on May 27, Delgado explained "the rationale for these modifications is largely based on Planning Board and community concerns about views, and technical discussions with both our architectural and structural consultants and the Ithaca Fire Department."
Cornell has decided to go forward with the net systems for their four bridges, but the city has to decide if they are going to allow the university to use the nets on the three city bridges.
The decision of whether or not the city will allow means restrictions on city property is in the hands of Common Council. In July, the council is expected to make a decision of whether or not they are going to allow the additions to the bridges. If they decide to look into the process, the Board of Public Works will be responsible for looking into infrastructure, materials and maintenance. However, before an affirmative decision can be made, the designs must be approved by the Environmental Review Agency. Plans for all seven bridges were submitted previously, with permission given by Mayor Carolyn Peterson for the three city bridges plans to be included.
According to Peterson, there are many factors that the city has to look at, and several committees that need to be consulted in this "unique process." The university has agreed to pay the expense for the establishment of the barriers, but has asked the city to pay for any potential maintenance.
"That's going to be a huge discussion point," she said. "We will need more information on what that means and how much it will cost before we come to a decision on that."
Another concern for Peterson is what Cornell's decision to install the nets means for the city if they decide not to.
"Cornell is a yes," she said. "As an elected official, what I think about the most, is what that means for the city. What if we don't do it? You have to weigh that in with your decision, which just makes it even more complicated."
Peterson believes the difficult part of the decision will be weighing all of the information, both scientific, sociological and psychological, in addition to the testimonies of the public.
"It's a lot of material, and a lot of it is contradictory," she said. "I plan to keep an open mind and see what is presented."
There is a lot of controversy regarding the idea of means restrictions. Some believe it to be a waste or resources, a band-aid on a problem. Others are saying it won't solve anything, and the university is trying to do something rather than nothing. Regardless of individual beliefs, a common theme is the idea of reaching out for help. The Suicide Prevention and Crisis Services of Ithaca are available 24/7 for free counseling at (607) 272-1616.