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Two suspected suicides confirmed at Cornell; total now at six

By Ross Levitt and Susan Candiotti, CNN
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College suicide crisis?
  • Rash of cases has rocked the Ivy League school in central New York State
  • Medical examiner: Office has been in touch with families of latest suicide victims
  • School has been praised by psychologists for its openness about the suicides
  • Cornell mental health chief says cause of the wave of suicides is unclear

Ithaca, New York (CNN) -- Two suspected cases of suicide on the Cornell University campus have officially been confirmed by the Tompkins County chief medical examiner, bringing the total number of suicides for the academic year to six.

Cornell officials had previously said authorities confirmed four other deaths at the school as suicides.

The medical examiner says his office has been in touch with the families of the latest suicide victims.

"They have all been made aware of the manner of death," Dr. Howard Socoff told CNN.

The rash of cases has rocked the highly competitive Ivy League school in central New York State.

The most recent suicides came on successive days and prompted the university's mental health initiatives director, Timothy Marchell, to declare a "public health crisis."

In February, a freshman jumped off a bridge over one of the area's well-known gorges. The body of a sophomore engineering major was found March 11 under similar circumstances. Police are also searching for a body in another suicide witnessed March 12.

David Skorton, who became president of Cornell in 2005, has been praised by counselors for encouraging openness on an issue that many schools try to cover up.

In an e-mail to students on Friday, he encouraged them to use available suicide-prevention resources.

Skorton placed full-page ads in the university newspaper, The Cornell Daily Sun, every day this week, which read, "If you learn anything at Cornell, please learn to ask for help. It is a sign of wisdom and strength."

The message may be getting through. The first sentence of the quote has been written in chalk on one of the bridges where the suicides took place.

The cause of the wave of suicides is unclear, Marchell said.

The national average for school suicides is 7.29 per year for every 100,000 students, said Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That means Cornell, with 19,639 students, should average fewer than two suicides a year.

Cornell had no suicides from 2005 to 2008, according to Marchell. And the school has consistently fallen within or below the national average, said Karen Carr, assistant dean of students at Cornell.

The school has been praised by psychologists such as Keith Anderson, chairman of the American College Health Association's Mental Health Best Practices Task Force, for counseling and prevention programs that confront the issue of student suicide with comprehensive training and understanding.

Cornell responded to a cluster of suicides in the late 1990s with comprehensive training for members of the university community.

Everyone on campus, including janitors, administrators, residential advisers and professors, is trained to look for symptoms of depression. Freshmen are screened for indicators of psychological disorders, and multiple counseling services are available for students in need.

"I know that they've been doing a lot of outreach efforts to educate the community. Cornell is kind of a model in some ways," said Anderson, a staff psychologist at the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, in Troy, New York.

In response to the current wave of suicides, Cornell will "strengthen the capacity of the community to know what to do," Marchell said. "They will be showing nonmental health professionals what role they can play and help students and faculty get the kind of support that they need."

The school also has posted guards to monitor the bridges over the gorges.

On Wednesday, campus clubs such as Cornell Minds Matters took part in a schoolwide event to promote mental health awareness.

CNN's Cassie Spodak contributed to this report.