Wednesday, February 21, 2007

again with the jump

I listened to an interesting interview last night on the BBC with Eric Steel, the guy who made "The Bridge," a movie I wrote about a couple of days ago. Steel trained cameras on the Golden Gate bridge for a whole year and captured on film almost all the 24 suicides that took place that year.

I promptly forgot all the interesting things I learned in that interview until I talked to SK a few minutes ago on the phone and remembered one big one: the interviewer noted the conspicuous lack of camera-time for bridge security personnel, or anyone from the city of San Francisco who might comment on the frequency of jumpers (the bridge is the number one suicide destination on the planet).

Turns out, all the people in charge of the bridge declined to appear in the film. According to Steel, the bridge people seemed to want to pretend the suicides didn't occur, as though not acknowledging the suicides would make them go away. I remember wondering, as I left the theatre, why they didn't do any number of relatively simple things to try and stop so many people from jumping off, ranging from erecting barricades to staffing the bridge with mental health workers who could roam around and try to engage with suicidal people.

Hearing Steel's assessment of the city's attitude, I was disturbed. The only reason I can imagine why the city would ignore this problem would be because it feared drawing attention to the suicides might hurt tourism at the bridge. That's a pretty cynical reason not to try and save lives, isn't it? Just a cold, cost-benefit analysis.

My feelings about suicide are complicated and I do believe, ultimately, that it's one of those sacred choices we have regarding our bodies and lives. I don't advocate preventing all suicides on some theory that suicide itself is wrong. I do, however, advocate providing mental health care where it's needed. When 24 people in one year choose to jump off a bridge teeming with pedestrians in broad daylight, isn't it safe to say that at least *some* of those people were hoping that the audacity and sheer visibility of their action would make someone walking past stop and say, "oh my god, are you ok?" I'm not exactly saying they were just looking for attention. I'm saying maybe some of them were looking for an actual human connection, some indication from the people around them that they mattered, that their human life mattered, and that their pain would not go unnoticed.

One of the men featured in the film, a man who jumped and survived, experienced his own version of this. Before he jumped, he stood on the bridge for nearly an hour sobbing, with tears streaming down his face. In all that time, he said, only one person spoke to him. A tourist. Did she say "Hey, are you ok?" Did she say "What's wrong, why are you crying?" No. She handed him a camera and asked him to take her picture. At that point, I guess I would've jumped too.


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