Suicides and The Bridge

The BridgeI’m very fond of the Janis Ian song, “The Bridge.” The first line of the song is, “The bridge that spans the gap between our souls…”

That is the obvious symbolism of a bridge: something that brings people and places together — that fills in the missing bits of our communal soul. I live very close to one of the most famous bridges in the world: the Golden Gate Bridge. And although I cross over it quite often, I still get a thrill out of it. It is magnificent and it spans the void that separates the Left Coast from its Capital, which is San Francisco.[1]

For me, it is a symbol of the connection that all we Left Coasters share.

Symbol of Hope, Symbol of Death

But sadly, the Golden Gate Bridge is also a symbol of loneliness, despair, and death. On average, every two weeks someone kills themselves by jumping from the bridge. And because so many people have killed themselves with the Golden Gate Bridge, it has become something of a destination for people who see their best way forward as death.

I’ve long been fascinated by a quote from jump survivor Ken Baldwin, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped.” Those words have haunted me, because their meaning is clear: for most people, suicide is the result of a weak moment. Most people who are stopped or survive never try again. It’s like the old saying, “Wisdom comes to some suddenly.”

CHP Sgt Kevin Briggs is known as “Guardian of the Golden Gate.” Over the last two decades, he has stopped over 200 people from jumping from the bridge.A great deal of effort is spent watching for people on the bridge who look like they might be jumpers. But it is surprisingly hard to tell.

The Documentary The Bridge

Last week, I watched Eric Steel’s 2006 documentary, The Bridge. He put together a crew of 12 people who spent a year filming the bridge, every day. The results are amazing.

“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable — except for having just jumped.” –Ken Baldwin

The film starts with various shots of the bridge and the bay and most of all of the people walking across the bridge and looking over the railing.

And then there is an older man looking over the edge. He looks like a tourist. He climbs over the rail and jumps. Many, perhaps most, people regret their decisions as they fall as Baldwin did. But this man doesn’t seem to have any regrets. He doesn’t try to reorient himself. He just falls to his death. It was shocking to watch. And it is not the only jump that was filmed. During the filming, 24 people killed themselves from the bridge, and the filmmakers got footage of 23 of them.

The Filmmakers Are Trying to Save Lives

Before you get the idea that the filmmakers were some kind of ghouls, let me be clear: they did not approach this as nature photographers, just capturing whatever happens without getting involved. When they could help someone, they did. And during the year, they prevented six suicides themselves.

One is in the film where a young woman climbs over the railing. The cameraman talks about it afterward. There is a tendency for people who do this kind of work to become detached from the reality that they are filming. But finally, it hit him, “She going to jump.” So he leaned far over the railing, grabbed her by her jacket and flung her back onto the sidewalk. They fought for about three minutes before authorities showed up and took her to the hospital. One hopes that she is now glad things turned out that way.

We Live for Others

In what was probably most compelling to me, the filmmakers captured an attempted suicide that is prevented by some CHP officers. They talk the guy down. The filmmakers found the guy and interviewed him later. He told his story about being in a very unhealthy marriage with lots of drugs and infidelity.

So he kissed his young son goodbye and went to the bridge. He was very candid about how the officers got him to stop, “They used my son against me.” But he seemed glad that they did.

Not a Fun Film — But Important

Overall, the film is kind of a downer. But it does have a hopeful message. If people can be stopped, or even slowed down, there is hope.

A lot of people have mental problems that are treatable. I hope that wider access to healthcare (especially here in California) will help matters. But the movie is worth checking out.

Since it was made, the bridge authority has been in the process of installing a “plastic-covered stainless-steel net below the bridge as a suicide deterrent.” Of course, nothing will stop everyone. But every bit the process is made harder saves lives.

See The Bridge — It’s Edifying

The whole film is on YouTube as I write this, but it will be taken down. You should buy it or rent it, of course. Here is the trailer:

[1] For the record, the Bay Bridge is my favorite with its double span. And by Left Coast, I mean the nation defined in American Nations, which includes Oregon and Washington, but not (Thank God!) Southern California.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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