By Lauren Dubinsky
The devastating series of suicides at Cornell University has shone a light on the success of Stony Brook University’s Center for Prevention and Outreach and University Counseling Center. Cornell’s reputation of being a high-stress “suicide school” was heightened after three apparent suicides were committed in less than a month. Many questions arise as to what SBU is doing differently than Cornell regarding their suicide prevention.
“The recent tragic suicides of three students within a month has shocked Cornell campus and is the talk of the town,” Alex Cain, Cornell University senior, wrote in his blog, “Unfortunately, this only perpetuates the stereotype I hear from so many other schools about Cornell being a ‘suicide’ school. Depression still remains an uncomfortable subject Cornell tries to address with resources.” It is well-known that Cornell is considered a “suicide school” because of their extensive accounts of suicides over the years. The recent suicides that occurred in March put Cornell under a microscope. It seems to be a mystery as to why more students at Cornell commit suicide than at SBU. The problems that Cornell students face and the way in which the university aims to handle them must be taken into consideration.
The students and staff of Cornell linked the suicides to the long upstate New York winter, classroom demands of an Ivy League university, and the evaporation of internships and jobs for graduates. Only assumptions can be made because it is almost impossible to determine the cause of suicides in a broad sense. “Cornell is a tough school, there is no way to put it lightly,” Cain said, “Regardless of the majors, I have friends from English to chemical engineers and they all have experienced more than their fair share of struggles thanks to Cornell.”
Despite the assumptions that Cornell’s suicide prevention is obsolete, they have a substantial number of counseling and outreach programs available for their students. The director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Cornell University, Gregory Eells, publishes articles in scholarly journals and presents frequently at national conferences. Cornell created a program called “Let’s Talk,” which involves counselors from their Gannett Health Services having office hours in different locations all over the campus. They found that students who were too intimidated to schedule appointments for counseling were more likely to go to a counselor when it was on their own turf.
“Cornell is fortunate enough to have a number of excellent resources in the Gannett Health Center, our residential communities, faculty advising, and our college advising offices that work together to make this a caring community. Susan Murphy, the vice president for Student and Academic Services at Cornell, said in a video message posted on caringcommunity.cornell.edu, “But even those resources together with our faculty and student staff have been strained, as all of us have been coping with the loss of life we have been experiencing as a community.” Cornell offers numerous resources for students who are experiencing depression and thoughts of suicide, but that is not always enough. Cornell has made a few changes on their campus to better prevent suicides. Custodians are being trained to look for signs of emotional trouble when they are cleaning the dorms. Therapists are located at 10 campus locations and hold open-door hours. A handbook was distributed to the faculty that explains how to look for students that are in distress.
After looking at the resources that Cornell offers and seeing how they still experienced a devastating series of events, the question as to what SBU is doing differently arises. Four years ago, Dr. Jerrold Stein, associate vice president of Student Affairs and Dean of Students, pulled together a working group to look at the biggest mental health problems on campus. The working group made a suggestion to have an office central to depression. That suggestion led to the birth of the Center for Prevention and Outreach. The CPO has identified depression and suicide as a specific area of focus and has employed one of the four full-time clinical psychologists as coordinator of depression and suicide outreach. Over the past four years that the CPO has been in existence, SBU has experienced two suicides.
The CPO is different from the University Counseling Center in that they do programs for student orientation, train resident hall directors and run three peer education programs. The UCC provides the counseling and the CPO coordinates the suicide prevention programs. They both work together in helping students know what to look for when they fear that their peers are considering suicide. Before the CPO, there was not much recognition of the UCC. Michael Bombardier, assistant director of CPO, said, “CPO has been very successful in some specific ways. A lot of students didn’t know counseling was offered. Since we were dedicated to putting ourselves out there a lot of students know who CPO is.”
SBU has a variety of programs at students’ fingertips that are aimed at preventing suicide. The CHILL program is a credit-bearing course that teaches students to plan, co-facilitate and assess educational outreach programs in mental health and wellness under the supervision of a certified health education specialist and a clinical psychologist. CHILL was the silver winner of the 2009 NASPA Excellence Award in the Student Health, Wellness, and Counseling Category. SBU feels that it is important for students to be educated in mental health and wellness so they can help their peers. They believe students are much more likely to turn to their peers when they are going through a difficult time rather then talking to a counselor.
The CPO and the CHILL mental health peer educators came together to develop a depression screening program. Over 30 percent of SBU students who had depression screening had scores of moderate to severe depression. In the past two years, 3,000 students have been screened for depression. Those students that fall in the moderate to severe depression category are advised to go to counseling in order to resolve or alleviate their problems.
The UCC created the Mindfulness Meditation Program that offers 8-week training to teach students techniques shown to reduce stress level and increase one’s ability to manage unpleasant emotions. Cheryl Kurash, staff psychologist for the UCC, said, “Mindfulness practice is both prevention and treatment at the same time, and I believe it has great potential to be useful to students who are depressed, stressed, anxious, overwhelmed. There is much evidence-based research that shows its impact on reducing depression and anxiety and increasing a sense of well being.”
Although SBU appears to be doing an exceptional job at preventing suicide, all the credit cannot be given to them. Julian Pessier, Associate Director of Counseling and Psychological Services at Stony Brook, said, “It is my understanding that at Stony Brook we have been quite fortunate to have few instances of student suicides over the years. But we at CAPS do not ‘pat ourselves on the back’ for that. We believe in the work we do, and we believe we do it well, but preventing self-harm and promoting psychological well-being are goals that we believe we always need to work harder toward, to improve our understanding of what students who are struggling most need from us.”
Many students from SBU come from cultures around the world and they view academics as a way to get ahead. Bombardier said, “I think that Stony Brook is in the same league as Cornell’s pressurized environment. Many students want to succeed and excel. They were the top of their classes in high school but when they come here it is much more difficult to maintain that ‘top of the heap’ status,”
As much outreach that is being done in the field of psychology, the way to predict suicides has not been uncovered. “Every year that we have zero suicides, I see it as a combination of fortune and good work,” said Bombardier. “I cannot confidently say that we won’t have a year like Cornell did. That being said, we have to try.”