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Deaths Revive Cornell's Reputation As 'Suicide School'

Cornell University is reeling after news of two likely suicides by students in the past week, and four others this academic year. The gorges that run through its scenic campus have too often provided an opportunity for troubled students to end their lives. The university has battled a reputation as a "suicide school." A big effort to address mental health issues in recent years had brought the numbers down substantially.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

And I'm Linda Wertheimer.

Cornell University is on high alert. Guards are stationed on bridges by the steep, rocky gorges on the campus. Three students are believed to have jumped to their deaths there in recent weeks. If the cause of death is confirmed, that will make a total of six suicides at Cornell this year. NPR's Tovia Smith reports.

TOVIA SMITH: Extra counselors are working extra hours, even going door-to-door checking on students. Last night, hundreds of students gathered to reflect on the tragedies. Junior Asa Craig, who helped organize the event, says students are struggling to understand how it could've happened.

Mr. ASA CRAIG (Junior, Cornell University): There's always questions of, well, could we have done things better? Could we have reached out a little bit more? There are some indications now, looking back in hindsight, a cry out for help.

SMITH: For example, Craig says, dark poetry on a students' Facebook page about isolation and stress. It's exactly the kind of clue Cornell is now hoping students and faculty will become more aware of.

They've begun intense training in what they call psychological first aid, including this online lesson from director of Counseling and Psychological Services Gregory Eells on how to recognize students who might be at risk.

Dr. GREGORY EELLS (Director, Counseling and Psychological Services, Cornell University): They may not say specifically that they're thinking about killing themselves. But they may make more veiled references, like I just want it to stop. I don't think I can take this anymore. I just can't go on.

SMITH: Cornell has long struggled with a reputation as a high-stress, suicide school. But officials say that's just because suicides there are often very public in Cornell's dramatic gorges. They say their suicide rates are actually at or below the national average, in part, because of their aggressive outreach programs.

Professor MORTON SILVERMAN (Psychiatry, University of Chicago): Cornell and the folks up at Cornell have set the gold standard. It is light years ahead of many other campuses.

SMITH: That's Morton Silverman, psychiatry professor at the University of Chicago and an expert in suicide prevention.

Prof. SILVERMAN: I do think that Cornell has done as much as they possibly can do, but sadly, it's very difficult to ensure the safety of everyone all the time.

SMITH: Silverman says because suicides tend to be impulsive, they are very hard to predict. And adding to the challenge, half of young people have talked about suicide, according to research. And one in 10 has seriously considered it, making it very hard to suss out who might actually act on it.

Prof. SILVERMAN: We don't have a blood test for suicide. And we don't have an x-ray to tell us what's going on. That's one of the great challenges that we have facing us.

SMITH: Trying to cast a wide net, counselors at Cornell have set up tables around campus, offering cookies. They're also launching a system where every kid going to the campus clinic, even for a cold, will automatically be screened for depression. Tim Marchell is Cornell's director of Mental Health Initiatives.

Dr. TIM MARCHELL (Director, Mental Health Initiatives, Cornell University): What we're trying to do is connect the dots before it becomes a crisis. Oftentimes, these subtle signs appear. And if we can get information from multiple sources and compare notes, we can begin to formulate a better picture of how someone is doing and come up with a plan to help them.

SMITH: Given the difficulties identifying at-risk students, Cornell is also considering ways to make it harder to commit suicide. Officials say they are considering new, taller fences around the bridges that cross the gorges.

Tovia Smith, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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