It’s hot. It’s humid. You woke up in a sweat again, and it wasn’t even about that exam you have coming up. No, the reason you woke up miserable is because you couldn’t get your windows to open more than a crack, due to some conveniently-placed window stops.
To understand the rationale behind these window stops, we have to look back to the discussion that took place this time last year. During 2012’s New Student Orientation Program, Martha Corey-Ochoa, who was a member of the Columbia College Class of 2016, committed suicide by jumping out of her 14th-story John Jay window. The discourse that followed included a great deal of soul-searching, meaningful talk about “how we’re doing,” and proposals for substantive change. By December, these proposals had been ignored, and instead a plan to install window stops in every window in every University residence hall was implemented.
These window stops were designed not only to prevent suicide attempts, but also potential accidental falls. According to an email sent out by Housing in December, the window stops were installed “in an effort to continuously improve safety measures.” And here we are, a year later, with our safety purportedly improved.
I don’t mean to bring up these painful memories to dismiss them flippantly by complaining about the heat. On the contrary, we need to examine the window stops seriously with the past in mind.
Preventing suicide on a large scale revolves around lethal means reduction. That is why we have safety nets, why we require powerful drugs to be prescribed, and why areas with more stringent firearm regulations have lower suicide rates. The availability of firearms is directly tied to successful suicides, and most people are not so determined that they would go far out of their way to pursue suicide. During the ’60s, England transitioned from coal gas to natural gas, which does not have the same content of carbon monoxide. At the same time, suicide rates—with carbon monoxide poisoning as its leading cause—dropped dramatically. Without a readily available way to commit suicide, most people “gave up” and kept on living.
We now turn to window stops with this perspective. There is no doubt that they work to reduce the ready availability of heights, especially when the gap is often a meager eight inches—a far cry from the 20 inches that Housing claimed there would be.
And were this the end of the story, had we truly achieved something by doing this, were there no other, more effective ways to combat suicide, I would be the first in line to advocate suffering through the sweltering heat to prevent any more deaths. But the fact of the matter is that many windows can simply be removed. The fact of the matter is that there are an exceptionally large number of very high-up places accessible to students because we live in New York City. Even in New York, with all its dangerous heights, suicides by jumping account for fewer than a fifth of all suicides. The fact of the matter is that we’ve achieved little by installing window stops, and wasted quite a lot.
For a rough calculation of how much putting in window stops cost, consider this: There are about 6,000 undergraduates in Columbia College and the School of Engineering and Applied Science, each room has about two windows, and each window has two window stops. Even with an absurdly fast team of workers, working for minimum wage, using the cheapest window stops available, the price tag on the operation is extremely high. The point here is not that the money should have been used in other, more helpful ways (though it should have), but that we could have easily elicited funds to fix our problems, had we as a community cared and were willing to push for changes to improve wellness. What we’ve wasted is a moment in which our hearts were aligned, and our focus was on making Columbia safer and fixing existing problems.
While lethal means reduction might be the best solution on a large scale, we live in a community. We can have other methods available, such as direct interventions and psychological services. Instead of installing window stops that have no documented evidence of efficacy in suicide prevention, we should have taken the costlier, tougher route of expanding programs that affect general student wellness. That might mean spending twice as much to add on a few more hours to Counseling and Psychological Services on the weekends, when there are currently none. It might mean more Stressbusters events, or even just a few more visits from puppies.
“Preventing suicide by installing window stops is like preventing alcoholism by narrowing bottlenecks” was an analogy passed around by a frustrated student body last year, as the weather got warmer. It’s a good analogy, and it is absolutely spot on. We shouldn’t be mad about dealing with stifling heat, being treated like children, or being fined for removing window stops. We should be mad that we’ve squandered an opportunity to make substantive change to student wellness—but instead put a half-hearted, ineffectual Band-Aid on a wound that could open at any time.
The author is a Columbia College sophomore. He is a deputy opinion editor for Spectator.
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