The Suicide Contagion at New York University



 by Elizabeth Brackbill

   Since a year ago, when I started working to bring the Icarus Project to New York University, we have made a lot of progress in beginning to establish an Icarus presence on campus.  Although thus far we have been somewhat successful in accomplishing our goals, we could have been much more productive during this time if it weren’t for a few issues with the university administration that are holding us back.  All of these issues stem from one specific idea, the idea of a suicide contagion.  The idea of a suicide contagion is that when a suicide occurs in a community it may encourage other members of that community to commit suicide.  A suicide contagion may also be referred to a cluster of suicides.  In a report published by the New York State Office of Mental Health in 2004, they discussed the idea of a suicide contagion as a special risk factor for college students.  The report said, “College students appear to be particularly susceptible to suicide contagion/imitation.  In recent years, a number of suicide clusters, usually involving jumping from heights, have been reported on college campuses.  Within New York State, apparent suicide clusters have occurred at Cornell University and New York University.”  The cluster of suicides at NYU occurred during the 2003-2004 academic year and was heavily publicized by the media.  This episode of a suicide cluster instilled much fear in the NYU administration.  
    At the beginning of the spring 2006 semester, we had a big meeting with a few powerful NYU administrators.  We requested the meeting in order to introduce the Icarus Project to the NYU administration and see if they would support our efforts to build a community on campus that focuses on and promotes mental health.  At the beginning of the meeting, Linda Mills, the Vice Provost for University Interdisciplinary Initiatives, clarified the issues that frame the context that we’d be working within, namely the idea of the contagion and the need to protect the public image of NYU.  Linda Mills said that if we had approached her two-years prior, she would have denied our request to bring Icarus to NYU, because we would have still been in the contagion period.  She was referring to the period after the cluster of suicides in 2003 and 2004.  During that period, the administration considered it especially dangerous to discuss mental health issues such as suicide on campus because it may induce more suicides.
    The other issue we were told to always keep in mind was that at NYU, all eyes were on us.  After the suicides the administration was advised by experts to keep the suicides as quiet as possible in an effort to contain the contagion.  According to an article in The Hartford Courant, Linda Mills said, “[we were advised to] tell only who you need to tell.  If you say too much, you run the risk of glamorizing a single death and the contagion can influence other vulnerable students who might be tempted to do the same thing.”  The administration efforts to keep the suicides quiet failed due to the media coverage.  In the same article Mills says, “…we could control, or try to control, the spread of the contagion by our own actions.  But we couldn’t control the media spread of the contagion.” 
    During that time I was a high school senior in the throws of the fairly traumatic process of applying to college.  I paid attention when I heard stories in the news about the many suicides at NYU because Gallatin at New York University was my first choice school.  It was unnerving to learn that multiple students at NYU decided to take their own lives, but it didn’t affect my desire or decision to attend the university.  I remember reading an article in Rolling Stone magazine about Stephen Bohler, an NYU freshman, who after only 6 weeks of the fall semester was the second person of the year to jump to his death in the atrium of the Elmer Holmes Bobst Library.  Reading the detailed story sent chills up my spine.  I wondered why these students felt compelled to end their lives.  The article focused on Stephen Bohler’s use of marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms, but I knew plenty of kids who used these drugs heavily and none of them ever attempted suicide or expressed a wish to die.  I wondered if NYU was a depressing school to attend; I wondered if there was something wrong with living life as an NYU student.  My knowledge of the NYU suicides and how it informed my perception of the university was exactly what the administration feared most and was working hard to avoid. 
    I understand why the administration was and still is fearful of suicides being heavily publicized in the media and it’s effect it may have on the suicide contagion, but I do not agree with their approach to containing the suicide contagion by quieting the discussion of the suicides.  The whole concept of a suicide contagion largely reflects the mainstream disease model of mental illness.  According to the dictionary, “contagion” means “the communication of disease by direct or indirect contact” or “the ready transmission or spread as of an idea or emotion from person to person.”  The connection the idea of contagion has to the medical model is written in the definition of the word.  The western approach, which created the medical model, is to take case experiences of individuals and then apply it to create diagnoses, which are then used to categorize the rest of society.  Then the western medical model attempts to alleviate the symptoms of the “disorder” rather than treat the root cause of the “disorder.”  So instead of encouraging a depressed person to seek a dramatically different and new life that makes them happy, the western approach attributes the depression to a life-long brain chemical imbalance or disease, which can only be fixed with drugs. 
    This western approach to treat the surface rather than the root of the problem is parallel to how the administration responded to contain the suicide contagion.  The fact that four NYU students decided to commit suicide indicates that they were unhappy enough with the situation of their lives to decide to end them.  The administration may deny this fact and attribute their acts of suicide to the contagion effect, saying that they would not have committed suicide if they hadn’t watched their classmates do the same.  This attitude focuses more on the end result of these students’ lives rather than pain they must have been suffering prior to their deaths.  Instead of publicly addressing suicide as a major issue many young people are facing, and talking about ways to heal from past suicides in the community and create a happier and healthier college environment to prevent future suicides, the administration decided to not talk about it at all.  They sacrificed openly addressing suicide and discussing the root of the problem, in order to prevent the problem from manifesting in other suicides.  It is a great idea to try to prevent suicides, but without creating a campus community that is aware of the issues surrounding suicide and teaching students tools to deal with them, they have opted to leave a lot of students suffering in silence without a community that knows how to talk about these issues. 
    Aside from attempting to prevent suicides by not talking about them, the administration took some other direct actions to prevent the suicides, which are classified by the mainstream as “means restriction.”  In the report on suicide published by the New York State Office of Mental Health, they discuss the idea of means restriction for college campuses.  The report says, “College and university officials should undertake a comprehensive analysis of all structures and activities that may provide an opportunity for suicide, and take appropriate actions to limit students’ access to potentially lethal means.  This may involve a range of activities including constructing barriers on balconies, rooftops and bridges; and establishing clear policies and procedures that restrict the availability and use of alcohol, illicit drugs and firearms on campus.”   In response to the “experts,” NYU implemented these means restrictions.  They locked all university windows allowing students and faculty to open their windows only four inches.  This includes dorms that have no cross ventilation and have no air conditioning.  They also locked doors to beautiful balconies in dorm rooms.  They also installed Lexan, a transparent plastic barrier, on top of all the railings in Bobst Library.  These efforts may physically prevent the students from committing suicide in certain locations, but they do little to improve the lives that students are living in order to prevent suicides.  The means restriction efforts also leave reminders across campus that these suicides did occur, keeping them present in our minds, but without a space to express our emotions about them. 
    In doing some research I have discovered that there were discussion groups led by professors and that there was an effort made to station counselors in dorms as well.  This is exactly the kind of thing the Icarus Project is advocating and I was pleased to learn these facts.  Though I was bothered by the fact that I had to do research to discover that such discussions were happening on campus.  Because I am an NYU student I should have been informed about such discussions, but I had no idea.  I wasn’t aware of them because, as far as I know, they only took place as an emergency response to the suicides during the 2003-2004 academic year.  By the time I arrived in the fall of 2004, the administration had already hushed the discussion of suicide on campus.  Although the contagion period was over, there were still many students who are suffering and may need a safe space to talk about these issues.  Though the administration made efforts to reach out to students and provide these safe spaces through the institution of the wellness exchange, there are many students who are turned off by the wellness exchange and the counseling center and are still left dealing with their pain in isolation. 
    At one of our first Icarus meetings at Gallatin, a student came who had been in the lobby of the library during one of the suicides, and witnessed a body come plummeting down to the floor.  He shared the story of what happened that day and explained how the administration dealt with the situation.  He said that all the students who had witnessed the suicide were ushered upstairs to the president’s conference lounge and asked if they were all right.  The students were then told that they had a limited number of free therapy sessions provided by the counseling center.  From what he described it seemed that the free therapy offer (which is provided for any NYU student) was pretty much all the administration had done for the students in his situation.  It was clear by the way that he spoke about the experience that he had not healed at all from the incident.  He was harboring a lot of anger towards the person who committed suicide and wondered why that person hadn’t considered the effect that their act would have on the people who happened to be below.  He also held much anger and contempt for the administration and was not satisfied by the way they dealt with the situation. Because the administration worked so hard to keep it quite on campus, he was not given a safe space or community in which he could express his thoughts and emotions about the suicide, and because of this had not had the chance to heal.
    After the meeting with the student who witnessed the suicide, Sascha DuBrul was very excited that we had created a safe space for students to discuss such issues.  He was so excited that we were taking the first steps to creating a community where such issues could be addressed in a safe space between peers, that he decided to write an email to the administrators who we had met with earlier in the semester, to tell them about the great progress we were making.  His story about a student discussing suicide was not what the administration wanted to hear; after all they don’t want suicide being spoken about in fear that it might spread the contagion and encourage suicide.  Their response to this incident was that from that point on we must have a counselor from the university counseling center present at all of the Icarus meetings. 
    The Icarus Project is a non-hierarchical organization that seeks to create spaces free of authoritative figures.  We are a peer support based organization and having a counselor present is completely antithetical to our values.  Having meetings with a counselor present is hypocritical on our part and has turned off many people who have come to meetings interested in our ideas and what we are doing on campus.  The administration’s demand has hindered our capacity to generate the supportive community we are working to create because after people attend a meeting with a counselor present, they never come back.  Many of the students we are trying to reach are those who are running away from the counseling center, and the last thing they want to run into is a counselor.  To many students a counselor represents the medical model of “mental illness,” which many of us find actually exacerbate our mental distress rather than heal it.  One of the biggest goals of the Icarus Project is to bury the disease model in this culture, to change the society’s perception of what it means to be “mentally ill” by removing the stigma that currently surrounds “mental illness.”