Sunday, April 03, 2005

Rebutting Neil Steinberg's Column on NYU

Dear Editor, New York Daily News:

Neil Steinberg's column in the Sunday, April 3, 2005, issue of the New York Daily News, has a negative comment on the NYU decision to close balconies to prevent suicides.

I have read similar comments in one student newspaper. But this view is an unfortunate one. And tragically uninformed, as well.

Steinberg notes that NYU's resolution is "well-intentioned but wrong in trying to curb student suicides," and then repeats this old incorrect chestnut: "People who want to kill themselves find a way." Recalling a deeply personal experience (which is how most people relate to suicide), Steinberg remembers when he was a student how another used a knife as the way to kill himself. Steinberg is talking about different methods. He is not discussing going from one method to another in his example, and certainly not giving insights into the copycat effect we see occurring at NYU, in which students there are dying by jumping, a very rare means of suicide.

Several components of what we know about suicide must be taken into account here. In general, in the majority of situations, when a person decides to take his or her own life, they stick to their plan, even an impulsive one, and in the majority of cases, do not drift from their chosen method, to die by suicide. Yes, there are exceptions to this, but people do not usually move from method to method to kill themselves. That's a myth that allows potential helpers the opportunity to feel helpless, and serves any of us in avoiding doing anything to prevent suicides. The rigidity of the tunnelvision of suicidal thinking often is inflexible to going to another method if the chosen one becomes unavailable. Actually interrupting the method often sidetracks the crisis into a helping period in which the suicidal person may put everything in perspective - and live beyond the crisis. In 2004, I wrote a book (The Copycat Effect) that details the decades of research supporting exactly what NYU has done to actively prevent suicides.

Steinberg then paradoxically goes on to say "removing the knives" doesn't work as well as "programs and campaigns designed to discourage suicide." If he believes this, what is wrong with trying as many programs as possible to save lives? And does he not see that "removing lethal means" is merely another one of these "programs"? In the midst of a suicide cluster or crisis, in the midst of a wave of behavior contagion as exhibited when the copycat effect sweeps through a campus or a high school, attention to the
specific method that is being modeled from one vulnerable individual to another must occur. Limiting access to that "copycatted" method keeps people safe and alive.

New York University officials are saving lives by closing balconies, and giving students a second chance to overcome the pain that they are trying to escape through their leaps of death. Student editorials and columnists aside, NYU has done the right thing!

Loren Coleman, MSW
Suicidologist, Author

No comments: