Barriers as suicide prevention wouldn’t work at Columbia

By Editorial Board

Mental health is an important concern at any college or university. In the last decade, reaching out to troubled students has become even more pressing in the wake of recent campus shootings and a few well-publicized suicides across the nation. Even Columbia has had its fair share of less-publicized suicide scares, especially at residence halls. Some researchers are coming forward to advocate “means restriction,” a suicide prevention method that utilizes physical barriers on bridges and on top of buildings to protect suicidal individuals from hurting themselves or others.

But means restriction should not replace education and awareness, and Columbia should not embrace it if it is considered for implementation on campus in the future.

Purchasing and implementing safety barriers around campus would cost thousands. In the wake of an ongoing lawsuit, Cornell University spent more than twice the amount of money used for improving mental health centers on temporary barriers. Howard Ginsburg, father of a student who killed himself by jumping off one of the university’s many bridges, states in his lawsuit that the university was “negligent” in preventing his son’s death.

It is understandable why Cornell erected the barriers, but the cost of maintaining a continuing culture of awareness on any campus, something mental health centers often do, is more worthwhile. Means restriction does not consider that some suicidal people will find another way to commit suicide.

At first means restriction seems like a convincing argument for suicide prevention. Various studies, including a famous one examining the effectiveness of barriers on the Golden Gate Bridge, proclaim high rates of suicide prevention and low death rates. The Golden Gate study found that out of 515 individuals who were restrained from committing suicide on the bridge, only six percent later committed suicide elsewhere.

Means restriction isn’t as effective as it seems. First of all, many of the studies conducted about the efficacy rate of means restriction do not consider various factors about the nature of suicide. Authors of one study done on the Ellington and Taft bridges in Washington, D.C., even admitted that the data results were, and remain, inconclusive.

Simply put, we can never know if bridge or roof barriers prevent suicide. Implementing means restriction at Columbia would not benefit the student body or the campus anyway. No studies on means restriction can speak to an urban campus because most of them were conducted in rural and suburban areas. On an urban campus, there are hundreds of tall buildings and bridges individuals could jump from. This would mean spending thousands, maybe even millions, on barriers.

Columbia may not be considering means restriction at the moment, but should the suggestion arise, it would be best to continue improving mental health services, which has become the standard for all colleges in the nation.