Grasping the Profound Pain of Suicide

Describing depression to those who haven’t experienced it can be clumsy. The analogy I’ve found that best embodies my experience is “cloudy days.” The sun is still there but I’m unable to access that light. Instead, I’m cold and muted. Sometimes it’s cloudy for so long it’s hard to remember what the sun looks like. Sometimes it’s hard to believe the sun is there at all.

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A sculpture from “Schism” representing Sophie Hack MacLeod

As someone who has battled depression for years and intimately understands the pain surrounding suicide and mental illness, I want my art to make a statement about this epidemic. Art is visceral and can describe an effect or experience in deeply powerful ways. This, and my drive to grow as an artist, pushed me to complete a minor in fine arts as an undergraduate at Cornell University.

My installation, “Schism,” is featured in Still I Rise, an exhibition curated by Laura Rowley with the work of 12 artists on view at the Tompkins County Public Library from July through September. “Schism” deals with the pain of losing loved ones to suicide, commenting on the profound hole the deaths leave behind. With rising mental health concerns among my generation, the ability to outwardly mourn for people who die by suicide is incredibly important along the path to healing.

Yes, suicide is a sensitive topic. No, this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it. Treating suicide as a taboo topic not only stunts the healing process for suicide loss survivors, but teaches those plagued with suicidal thoughts that it’s something to be ashamed of, a weakness, which can deter them from seeking support. Open and empathetic conversation is critical to combat such tragedy.

“Schism” contains three sculptures. Each is a life-size, wooden silhouette of a suicide victim that is painted black with the best runner up to Vantablack commercially available, Black 2.0. It’s a special paint that is meant to absorb a higher percentage of light, creating the visual effect of “a schism in space.” This is meant to convey the loss felt when someone is a victim to suicide, to reveal the hole that remains in their physical shape in space they inhabited in life.

This installation is designed to represent loss of the individual, as each sculpture is a personalized and unique silhouette. Further, it is intrinsically connected to Ithaca as the individuals represented were all affiliated with the area: Sophie Hack MacLeod, 23, a Cornell fine arts major; Jason J. Seymour, 40, a Cornell systems analyst; and Alexander Joseph Reposh, 25, an Ithaca filmmaker and musician.

When someone is having suicidal thoughts, it’s far too easy to think, “I don’t matter, no one will even miss me, what’s the point? It’s suffocating.” I hope that “Schism” can be a reminder to those experiencing suicidal thoughts that your life is not trivial but is something to be cherished. “Schism” is also a symbol for those mourning a loved one and the horrific loss they must cope with.

—By Brianna Evans

briannaBrianna Evans is a 2018 graduate of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University. “Schism” was created as an independent study project supervised by Professor Roberto Bertoia of the College of Architecture, Art, and Planning. She wishes to thank The Sophie Fund, and the families of Sophie Hack MacLeod, Jason J. Seymour, and Alexander Joseph Reposh, for their support.

“Be the Change You Want to See”

When the story of American authorities separating children from their parents at the U.S.–Mexico border hit the headlines in mid-June, we knew we had to act. Six of us—Cornell University students staying in Ithaca during the summer break—met up and brainstormed what we could do.

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We were deeply concerned about the consequences of the Trump administration’s “Zero Tolerance” policy targeting asylum seekers and other migrants.  The Department of Homeland Security reported that 2,342 children had been separated from adults between May 5 to June 9. Many psychologists and health professionals condemned the separation and detention of children as a traumatic, emotionally damaging experience that could cause them “irreparable harm.” We were mindful, too, that nearly 100 South Asian asylum seekers were being detained in Oregon.

Motivated by what we saw as a gross abuse of political power, and inspired by the mass action taking place across the country, we decided to support fundraising for the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services. RAICES is one of the largest immigrant rights nonprofits in Texas that has been supporting immigrants and their families in securing legal representation, translation services, and other services. Almost overnight, a Facebook campaign had raised more than $20 million for the organization.

I remember wanting to donate but feeling helpless because I could not afford more than $5.00 from my own pocket. From the ubiquity of Facebook posts and conversations that were happening around the issue, I realized that many felt the same way. Unaware of any other effort to mobilize contributions from the Cornell community, six of us—Tarannum Sarwat Sahar ’20, Rose Ippolito ’20, Lizzie Lee ’19, Jaylexia Clark ’19, Anuush Vejalla ’20, and myself—got to work with three ideas in mind.

First, we wanted to multiply the amount of money we could have donated on our own. We also wanted to engage people on the family separation issue face to face. Lastly, we wanted to restore our own faith that positive and swift action could be taken by college students against injustices, even during a time of year when we are “on break.”

We figured we wouldn’t raise a huge amount—we would be content with even $200. On June 26, we began a week of tabling at the bus stop in front of the Schwartz Center for the Performing Arts. We had to cancel two of the days due to the weather, but were overjoyed to have raised almost $560 by the weekend. We were excited by the prospect of reaching $750—half of the $1,500 minimum needed to pay the bond for a detained migrant at the border.

Suddenly, we experienced a dispiriting misfortune—during our Saturday shift, an individual stole the entire contents of the cash box, taking off with most of the donations we had received at that point.

The blow was difficult to bear in the moment. June 30 happened to be the date when thousands of people in Ithaca and across the United States were marching and protesting the Zero Tolerance policy and family separation. So we took to our online networks and began to spread the tale of our predicament to our friends in every corner of the country, and even to the friends who were abroad for the summer. Within 20 minutes, I saw my personal Venmo account jump by nearly $100.

Our donations surged past $500 just a few hours later. It was utterly surreal. Over the next 24 hours, money continued to arrive, in $20, $10, and $5 increments—and even one 87-cent donation. By Sunday afternoon, we crossed the $1,000 mark with more donations pouring in.

For us, this became a story of a community coming together—people rallying around the immigration issue, and also friends responding to our SOS. It was incredible to see our friends (and also people we didn’t know!) contributing their support so quickly and generously.

We are extraordinarily grateful for the kindness and goodness of those around us. We know that in the end, this goodness will always drown out the negative actions of others. We are extremely thankful for every single donor, every single volunteer, and every single person who has taken interest in our fundraising effort.

Throughout the week, we talked to more than 200 people passing by our table. They gave us spare change, any dollars they could spare, and more importantly, took out time in their day to support a simple idea: #KeepFamiliesTogether. We want this to serve as a reminder that there is always a way to be the change you want to see in the world—no matter what time of year, no matter with what resources, and even when upsetting things happen.

Our fundraiser is closed–our final total was $1,120–but we ask that any and all further donations be sent directly to RAICES via its website here (scroll down to the donate box).

—By Winnie Ho

Winnie Ho is a senior in Cornell University’s College of Arts and Sciences studying neurobiology and sociology

Cornell’s Hazing Problem Redux

George Desdunes, son of a single-mom Haitian immigrant, joined the Sigma Alpha Epsilon chapter at Cornell University in part because he thought fraternity connections would help him find a good job after graduation. He never made it to that proud day. In the early hours of Friday February 25, 2011, the 19-year-old sophomore died in a hazing incident at SAE’s house on McGraw Place.

Kidnapped, blindfolded, wrists and ankles bound with duct tape, Desdunes drank a shot of vodka for every incorrect answer to a trivia question until he passed out. Fraternity pledges hoisted him onto a leather sofa, where custodians found him motionless a few hours later and called 911. Marie Andre wailed when she saw the corpse of her son in the morgue.

When President Martha E. Pollack announced frat-house reforms last week, it was but the latest effort by successive Cornell administrations since the senseless death of George Desdunes to put an end to the hazing scourge that, as Pollack puts it, “threatens the health and safety of our students and casts a shadow over our community of scholars.” Pollack set ambitious goals for her administration: not only to “eradicate hazing,” but to “present an example for other universities to follow.”

It remains to be seen if Pollack’s announced changes—banning hard liquor, stiffer penalties for hazing violations, mandatory educational programs, tighter house supervision—will have any greater impact than the ballyhooed initiative “to end pledging as we know it” put forth in 2011 by David J. Skorton, who was Cornell’s president at the time of the tragedy on McGraw Place.

An illustrious Cornell figure, Skorton, a cardiologist, is currently head of the Smithsonian Institution; his name and words are engraved in stone on an edifice on the Ithaca campus—the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives (“Bring your strength and spirit and heart to develop a caring community everywhere there is the name Cornell”). Yet Skorton’s own ambitious effort to stamp out hazing—which he heralded in a forceful Op-Ed in the New York Times—seems to have been a total failure. By Cornell’s own reckoning, at least 28 of the university’s fraternities—nearly half of them—have been sanctioned for hazing since Desdunes’s death.

Cornell disbanded the SAE chapter for a minimum five-year period after George Desdunes died. A judge found the fraternity guilty on state hazing charges and imposed a $12,000 fine. Three SAE pledges were acquitted of hazing charges. Desdunes’s mother brought a $25 million wrongful death suit against the national fraternity, and eventually reached a multi-million dollar out of court settlement.

Pollack’s initiative, which omitted any reference to Skorton’s “comprehensive strategy,” appears to be driven by another spate of cases and allegations this academic year—her first full year at Cornell—including the three-year suspension on hazing charges of the Gamma Theta chapter of Sigma Nu fraternity last Friday as Pollack was making her announcement in an email to the Cornell community. The hazing allegations against Sigma Nu cited by the Cornell Daily Sun included phrases like “I want this to stop,” and “makes me want to kill myself.”

A Cornell hazing incident made national headlines in February when the university’s Zeta Beta Tau was put on probation over a fat-shaming contest. Called the “pig roast,” new fraternity brothers were awarded points for having sex with overweight women.

Pollack announced changes to be enacted in four phases.

Effective immediately:

—Substantiated acts of hazing will result in a chapter’s suspension and loss of recognition. A minimum of three years will be applied for those cases that include coerced alcohol or other drug consumption, sexual and related misconduct, or other forms of violence or mentally abusive behavior that poses a threat to health “and safety…

—Hard alcohol (more than 30 percent alcohol by volume) is not permitted in a residential chapter house at any time.

Effective Fall Semester 2018:

—Each Greek letter chapter must submit a new member education plan prior to participating in new member recruitment. Chapter leadership will assume accountability for adhering to the approved plan.

—Prospective and current members must participate in mandatory educational programming (including, but not limited to, university expectations, hazing awareness, and policies on alcohol, drug use, and sexual and related misconduct) in order to be eligible to participate in the new-member recruitment and intake processes.

—A systemwide, online scorecard will be published and updated annually to include, among other things, the full judicial history of each chapter. This website will be publicized to the campus community and to the parents of all students.

—A comprehensive review of event management guidelines will be conducted and submitted for my approval. The review will include, but not be limited to, the training required for sober monitors, the use of independent bystander intervention services, the distribution of beer and wine for large events, and the number of large events permitted.

Effective Spring Semester 2019:

—Leadership positions in residential Greek letter organizations must be held by junior or senior students who reside in the chapter house.

—A comprehensive review of the Chapter Review Board process that governs recognition for fraternities and sororities will be conducted and submitted for my approval. The review will include, but not be limited to, structure, procedures, process, membership and community expectations.

Effective Fall Semester 2021:

—All residential fraternities and sororities must have a full-time, live-in adviser with clearly stated objectives and expectations for the role.

Said Pollack:

“The behavior in question goes well beyond innocent fun. It includes extremely coercive, demeaning, sexually inappropriate and physically dangerous activities that jeopardize students’ health and lives. The danger of such reckless actions cannot be ignored. Such activities are not tolerated in society and must stop in our Greek letter organizations… I do not take these steps lightly.”

Six and a half years ago, Skorton expressed similar determination in his Times Op-Ed:

“This tragedy convinced me that it was time—long past time—to remedy practices of the fraternity system that continue to foster hazing, Yesterday, I directed student leaders of Cornell’s Greek chapters to develop a system of member recruitment and initiation that does not involve ‘pledging’—the performance of demeaning or dangerous acts as a condition of membership. While fraternity and sorority chapters will be invited to suggest alternatives for inducting new members, I will not approve proposals that directly or indirectly encourage hazing and other risky behavior. National fraternities and sororities should end pledging across all campuses; Cornell students can help lead the way.”

In a November 28, 2012 memo titled “Plan to Meet President Skorton’s Challenge ‘To End Pledging as We Know It,’” Susan Murphy, vice president for Student and Academic Services, announced that Shorton had approved a “comprehensive strategy” for eradicating hazing.

Based on the recommendations of a special task force, the Fraternity and Sorority Advisory Council, and university administrators, staff, and alumni, the comprehensive strategy, as outlined by the Cornell Chronicle, included the following phases:

Effective immediately, fraternities and sororities must:

—Remove the “power differential” between members and initiates, which often leads to coercive behavior, and construct a model that treats all members, prospective or current, as equals;

—Transition from a pledge model to a membership development model that focuses on the organization’s core principles and extends through graduation;

—Secure approval for orientation events, by Cornell and such partners as the national organization, before they occur;

—Shorten new membership orientation to six weeks in 2012-13 and to four weeks thereafter;

—Communicate transparently, including online postings, about all infractions;

—Increase alumni involvement.

Effective Spring Semester 2013:

—The start of formal decision-making about live-in advisers in chapter houses and other issues.

Effective Fall Semester 2014:

—Training will be coordinated and standardized for live-in, chapter and alumni advisers, and consistent academic standards will be established for the Greek system.

“I applaud the work of students, staff and alumni to design a new membership approach for the Greek community,” Skorton said afterwards. “It is clear that progress has been made through this collaborative process. It is equally clear that we are not yet where we need to be.”

The Greek community is the heart of much of the social life at Cornell. About one-third of the university’s 15,000 undergraduates belong to one of 64 recognized fraternities and sororities. Neither Pollack nor Skorton proposed an indefinite alcohol ban on the Greek system—though most undergrads and virtually all pledges are under the New York State drinking age of 21—and both vigorously defended fraternities as part of a proud Cornell tradition.

“Greek letter organizations have a long history at Cornell University and have been a prominent feature of the undergraduate experience since 1868,” said Pollack last week. “The Greek system is part of our university’s history and culture, and we should maintain it because at its best, it can foster friendship, community service and leadership,” said Skorton in 2011.

In its editorial after Pollack’s announcement last week, the Cornell Daily Sun called the new changes “a good first step” but voiced skepticism about their ultimate effectiveness. The Sun said many of the ideas had been tried before, and speculated that Pollack’s alcohol ban would be unenforceable or ignored. “We have a new president, but a very old university, and old habits have an old habit of dying hard,” the Sun said.

Cornell Coalition on Mental Health

On March 9, Cornell University launched its Coalition on Mental Health. The coalition comprises over 80 students, staff, and faculty members and is chaired by Vice President for Student and Campus Life Ryan Lombardi.

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The coalition serves as a forum for discourse and information dissemination on emerging trends, research findings, and campus initiatives related to campus health and well-being. The coalition will examine student health priorities including the promotion of mental health and the prevention of suicide, alcohol and other drug abuse, and hazing. It will also address the intersection of these priority areas with sexual and interpersonal violence and bias.

The coalition builds on the role that the former university Council on Mental Health and Well-Being played from 2004–2016, as well as past councils on alcohol and other drugs and hazing prevention. The university’s Coalition on Sexual Violence Prevention continues to serve a corresponding role in relation to sexual assault, sexual harassment, dating violence, and stalking.

The coalition’s first meeting focused on Cornell’s Mental Health Framework. A standing-room-only turnout underscored the importance of mental health to the Cornell community. Coalition members discussed the framework, potential new strategies, and areas for improvement.

The coalition’s April meeting examined Cornell’s participation in JED Campus, an initiative of the JED Foundation. The first phase of Cornell’s involvement in the initiative was an external review conducted by JED. The review’s report and Cornell’s response are posted here on the Cornell Health website.

One function of the coalition is to facilitate communication about upcoming events and the activities various student organizations, including Cornell Minds Matter, Reflect at Cornell, and the Student Mental Health Task Force. In addition, the coalition includes representatives from the undergraduate Student Assembly and Graduate and Professional Students Assembly.

In the coming academic year, the Coalition on Mental Health will meet at least twice a semester and continue examination of ideas, challenges, and opportunities to support the health and well-being of the Cornell campus community. For more information (including meeting minutes and membership list), visit Cornell Health’s Campus Leadership & Health Campaigns page.

—By Timothy Marchell

Timothy Marchell, Ph.D., M.P.H. is a clinical psychologist and director of the Skorton Center for Health Initiatives at Cornell Health

Saying “The S Word” at Cornell

The uncomfortable topic of suicide was the main theme of a four-day-long “Mental Health Weekend” organized by the student mental health advocacy group Cornell Minds Matter. As part of its effort to encourage open discussion about suicide and to destigmatize mental disorders, the group hosted a screening for the Ithaca community Sunday evening of The S Word, a new award-winning documentary by director Lisa Klein. The event was sponsored by The Sophie Fund.

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Reba McCutcheon, Cornell University associate dean of students; Garra Lloyd-Lester, director, New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives; Lisa Klein, director of The S Word; Kelechi Ubozoh, mental health activist; and Cooper Walter, president of Cornell Minds Matter

The film follows the remarkable journey of suicide attempt survivor Dese’Rae L. Stage as she “documents the stories of courage, insight, and humor of fellow survivors.” Klein was on hand to personally present the film on the Cornell University campus, and, along with one of those survivors, Kelechi Ubozoh, took part in a panel discussion immediately following the screening. They were joined by Garra Lloyd-Lester, director of the New York State Suicide Prevention Community Initiatives.

Klein is a survivor of both her father’s and brother’s suicides. She has struggled with the “whys” for years, along with the guilt, shame, and confusion that lingers in suicide’s wake. She made The S Word to spur more open conversations about suicide.

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Watching The S Word at the Biotechnology Building conference room Sunday evening

“Tragically, 1,100 college students die each year by suicide, making suicide one of the leading causes of death among college students and young people generally,” said Cornell Minds Matter President Cooper Walter. “We hosted The S Word to increase the awareness and understanding of suicide. By expanding the conversation, we hope to contribute to the growing Zero Suicide initiative in Tompkins County.”

Other Mental Health Weekend events included a Speak Your Mind student panel in partnership with Active Minds at Ithaca College, where students could share their personal stories about suicide. On Saturday evening, the Suicide Prevention & Crisis Service of Ithaca hosted Dancing for Life, its 6th annual fundraiser for the local crisisline that provides 24/7 support for people in crisis.

The Sophie Fund is a nonprofit organization advocating for improved mental health policies and practices in Tompkins County. It was established by the family of Sophie Hack MacLeod, a Cornell senior who took her own life in Ithaca in March 2016 while on a health leave of absence.

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Sophie Jones, a Cornell University student and volunteer with The Sophie Fund, at The S Word screening

(Photography by Sarah Horbacewicz/The Sophie Fund)

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Click here to read the Cornell Daily Sun‘s story on the screening of The S Word

[If you or someone you know feels the need to speak with a mental health professional, you can contact the Crisisline (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline) at 1-800-273-8255 or contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741-741.]