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How Ivy League school Cornell dealt with a spate of suicides

When 10 students from Cornell University died between September, 2009, and March, 2010 - six of them killing themselves - there were references to the Ithaca, N.Y., institution as a "suicide school."

The campus is even sited between large gorges where three of the six suicides took place.

"The three more public deaths in the spring - I think the whole community really began to feel it," said Gregory Eells, Cornell's director of counselling and psychological services. But a suicide school? Dr. Eells thinks not. "There is no such thing as a suicide school," he said. "Schools are hit at various periods and different times. Suicides tend to occur in clusters."

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In a video released days after the March suicides, he argued that deaths caused by falls in the gorges, which he called "suicide hotspots," get associated with the identity of the university. He said that statistically, the school was below national averages in student deaths and suicides.

Dr. Eells chalks up the "suicide school" epithet as a way of assigning blame in a culture where if something goes wrong, someone must be at fault.

Many in the community called for change. And beyond the construction of eight-foot fences along the seven bridges across the gorges where three of the suicides took place, the Ivy League university has taken a hard look at itself.

Its senate passed a resolution saying that assignments that require work over breaks and holidays are "strongly discouraged." The dean of the university, William E. Fry, says he is "99-per-cent" sure that a committee will recommend shortening the time before spring break, and possibly add a second break in the spring semester. The school has teamed with student associations to produce forums aimed at encouraging dialogue between students and faculty about issues of academic pressure.

Joanna Siu, a senior studying industrial labour and relations, says she's seen a huge number of posters and seminars to raise awareness of mental-health issues and morale. In an increased focus on mental health that Dr. Eells says he is seeing at many American universities, Cornell has hired five additional counsellors and will add three more in the fall. "You can't improve the life of the mind," he said, "without concerning yourself with the health of the mind of the students you're dealing with." .

Just as suicides tend to be arbitrary, and just as there is no such thing as a suicide school, Dr. Eells says it's important to recognize that just because a suicide occurs doesn't mean that a program or a person has failed.

"In some ways, you can always think about, 'We could've done this, we could've done this, was there one way to connect.' But in one moment, with the information you have, you can't peer into someone else's soul and know what's going on. There's just no way of knowing."

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