This past week, walking through the hallways of Elmer Holmes Bobst Library, I overheard a conversation between two students and stopped. It was nothing special, just a casual remark on the aluminum screens that have become the new face of NYU’s principal library. The official NYU line on the recently completed barriers is that “The… aluminum screens have been custom made and fabricated to provide light, air, and views of the atrium as well as safety.”
Of course, most NYU students are already very familiar with the other reason for the renovations: namely, the three suicides that occurred at the library — two in 2003 and one in 2009, all involving students jumping from the building’s uppermost floors. Whatever people may think about the aesthetic quality of the screens — some people love them, others find them unsettling or ugly — it is worth noting that the bars themselves are actually not all that hard to remove. If the administrators at NYU were thinking clearly, they would see that any student distressed enough to jump could find a way. Necessity is the mother of invention.
Perhaps that is the reason why the screens are so unsettling. There exist an infinite number of ways to commit suicide. All that the screens really do is ensure that some of them are quieter. Screens simply do not prevent self-destruction, in the same way that building prisons does not lower crime rates. The root of the problem is what needs to be addressed, not its ugly aftermath.
NYU prides itself on its Wellness Exchange and counseling services, but walk into the Wellness Center on any given day, and you will find yourself waiting anywhere from 15 minutes to half an hour to see a counselor — and that’s only after you’ve filled out a mountain of paperwork. Speak to a counselor about your issues and you will receive sympathetic nods, a few smiles and the recurring phrase, “I understand.” Now, it merits recognition that not all counselors are created equal, but the lack of effective health care for the struggling verges on the absurd. NYU Wellness seems to operate on the mantra that a student must make a conscious, devoted effort in order to receive help. Those struggling with suicide, however, are often the last to come forward of their own free will. In a university as large as NYU, where many students feel like nothing more than a number, it is imperative that there exists a better and more comprehensive infrastructure for support.
We should remember that NYU is not the first university to face this issue: Cornell University began installing nets underneath many of its bridges in August in order to address similar concerns. The suicide issue is clearly all too real at far too many institutions
As the fall semester gets underway, it is important for us to look around and to realize just how many of our peers may be on the brink of desperation. University students are masters at acting; they know that in order to be socially accepted they must put on a happy face. Maybe it is time for a more open dialogue about mental illness and suicide — not just at NYU, but at universities across the country. And the universities themselves must facilitate this dialogue instead of simply turning the other way and installing suicide bars.
Emma Dolhai is a contributing writer. Email her at email@example.com.