Campuses grapple with suicide prevention

A recent lawsuit regarding a tragedy at Cornell University has sparked a nationwide discussion about universities’ responsibilities for the prevention of one of the most common killers of college students — suicide.

Cornell student Bradley Ginsburg was one of the estimated 4,000 young adults between the ages of 15 and 24 that commit suicide annually in the United States. Ginsburg jumped off a bridge on Cornell’s campus in 2010.

Suicide is the second leading cause of death among college students, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

Because of this high rate of suicide on college campuses, parents and others have questioned universities’ liability for suicide.

The student’s father, Howard Ginsburg, has filed a $180 million lawsuit against Cornell for negligence because the bridge that Bradley Ginsburg jumped off of did not have a fence, according to reports from The Cornell Daily Sun.

Negligence for universities usually includes administrators ignoring the warning signs of suicide, said Charles Daye, a UNC law professor.

But Howard Ginsburg’s lawsuit expands the definition of negligence to include a lack of physical barriers to suicide.

Public entities — such as UNC — are not usually liable for deaths, but there are exceptions with certain cases, Daye said.

The lawsuit against Cornell has also raised questions about whether alternative suicide prevention measures should be mandated on college campuses.

Physical barriers to suicide, such as fences on bridges, are known as methods of restriction. Methods of restriction are not legally required at universities.

“Colleges can’t possibly have a responsibility to prevent suicide in every possible way,” Daye said.

Dr. Morton Silverman, senior advisor to the Suicide Prevention Resource Center, said studies on whether restriction completely prevents suicide are mixed.

“We talk about measures that might be done to ‘suicide-proof’ a building,” he said. “But there is no such thing as a 100 percent guarantee that any physical changes will prevent suicide in all situations.”

Skip Simpson, a Texas-based lawyer who works on suicide cases at schools and workplaces, advocates for a prevention approach that mobilizes personnel.

Simpson said students, resident advisors, professors and faculty must recognize the signs and symptoms of a suicidal person.

Warning signs include moodiness, social withdrawal and alcohol abuse, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“The student body must be aware that silence kills,” Simpson said. “Students need to help each other out and refer one another to campus health.”

UNC Campus Health Services utilizes a suicide prevention method called SIREN, which teaches students how to act as allies and resources for potentially suicidal peers.

In addition, UNC Campus Health Services advises faculty to also be on the lookout for warning signs such as unusual behavior or absences.

Silverman does not discount either method of utilizing personnel or physical barriers.

“It is a combination of preventative interventions that have the highest likelihood of reducing most, but not all, suicides,” Silverman said.

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