They Don’t Really Want To Die: The Tragedy Of Instant Regret

8 Sep

“The millisecond that my hands left the rail, I had what I call an instant regret.  I prayed for my survival, hit the water, which is like hitting a brick wall at that speed.  I shattered three vertebrae, rendering me, my legs motionless.  I went down 70 to 80 feet, but I opened my eyes.”

–Kevin Hines, on the Glen Beck Program (8/12/14), discussing his suicide attempt from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2000

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There are many things about Jeff’s death that torment me on a daily basis.  For one, there isn’t a shred of doubt in my mind that he felt instant regret the second he took flight.  Unlike Kevin Hines, however, Jeff insured that he’d have no chance to survive, as he jumped over train tracks, not water.  Additionally, after having studied the relevant research, it’s clear that if we or anyone else had somehow thwarted Jeff’s suicide attempt, there’s a better than 90% chance that he’d not only be alive today, but that he would likely have been alive decades from now.  He would have buried me someday instead of the reverse.

Suicide is an impulsive act, and when suicidal thoughts are harbored by a naturally impulsive person, that is a dangerous situation, a tragedy waiting to happen.

Jeff was always an impulsive guy, and during the good days which comprised his entire life until his last two months, his actions actually resulted in some very funny stories.

The most classic one was when,  on November 20th, 2005, the Saturday before he was to come home from Middlebury for Thanksgiving break, one of Jeff’s friends told him that the Anchor Bar in Buffalo had the best Buffalo wings anywhere. That’s all Jeff needed to hear, and in one impulsive motion, he went to their site,  www.buffalowings.com and ordered 125 (two and a half buckets) of the hottest and spiciest wings that they offered, to be shipped to our home in time for his holiday break. After partying hard that night and having forgotten he had placed that order earlier in the day, he went to the site again after midnight and ordered another 125. In the irony of all devastating ironies, their spiciest wings were, and still are, called “Suicidal”.

 

suicidal wings 2

suicidal wings 1.jpg

When I checked my email the next morning, I found a confirmation of “my” order of 250 suicidal wings, and a credit card receipt for $250 including shipping.  I quickly realized that my impulsive eldest son was the culprit.  Sure enough, 250 wings arrived at our house a couple of days later. Lucky me. Classic Jeff. Fortunately, we had our big Thanksgiving bash at Carey’s cousin Athene’s house, and we all howled watching all the different generations of Greeks turning beet red after trying these incredibly spicy wings.

But impulsiveness cuts both ways, and during Jeff’s last months, it turned out to be his undoing.  Having had all he could take of his paralegal job and the heartless treatment he received from his bosses, Jeff quit and walked out without warning one day in mid-August of 2010.  He didn’t give notice to the firm, and he didn’t say a word to anyone. He just left.

And on November 9th, 2010, in a moment of extreme despair that nobody saw coming, Jeff committed the ultimate impulsive act.  After having made arrangements to see a behavioral therapist for the first time that afternoon, and after having lunch with Carey at home for over an hour while having another deep talk, and after telling her that he was going upstairs to work on his law school applications while she went to pick up Brett at the bus stop, something snapped.  I will never know what the final trigger was, but there’s one thing that I do know.  Had Jeff been met at the bridge by a barrier that prevented him from executing his plan, he would be alive today.

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In her February 14, 2013 New York Times front page article entitled “With Guns, Killer and Victim Are Usually the Same”, Sabrina Tavernise wrote, “Suicidal acts are often prompted by a temporary surge of rage or despair…”

The first formal study which confirmed that thwarting the initial suicidal urge can wipe it from a tormented individual’s mind forever was published by Richard Seiden in 1978.  It’s entitled “Where Are They Now? A Follow-Up Study of Suicide Attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge”. In the study’s opening paragraph, Seiden (a former professor at the University of California at Berkeley) wrote:

“Proposals for the construction of a hardware antisuicide barrier have been challenged with the untested contention that “they’ll just go someplace else”. This research tests the contention by describing and evaluating the long-term mortality experience of the 515 persons who had attempted suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge but were restrained, from the opening day through the year 1971… Results of the follow up study are directed toward answering the important question: ‘Will a person who is prevented from suicide in one location inexorably tend to attempt and commit suicide elsewhere?’”

Seiden notes that there are many landmark structures, including the Eiffel Tower and the Statue of Liberty, that have historically been hotbeds of suicide activity. But as he wrote:

“… these examples differ from the Golden Gate Bridge story in one very significant respect. In every other instance the rash of suicides led to the construction of suicide barriers, which dramatically reduced or ended the incidence of suicides. Of all the suicide landmarks, the Golden Gate Bridge alone has failed to solve the problem with a protective hardware suicide deterrent.”

Thankfully, as I will get to shortly, the Golden Gate Bridge finally did make a firm decision in June 2014 to solve the problem. 

One of my favorite photos of my boys and me was taken at the top of the Eiffel Tower in August 2008. Note the protective wire mesh that surrounded us. This was installed decades earlier to eradicate the plague of suicide from the tower. And the protective wire did just that. There is no way anyone can jump from there. The only way out is to walk back down the stairs or take an elevator. As Seiden’s study shows, barriers work not only to prevent a specific suicide attempt but also to alter a would-be jumper’s mindset such that they will never try again.

eiffel tower photo

More from Seiden:

“Relative to the Golden Gate Bridge, a consequence of this belief is that there would be little to gain from a hardware antisuicide barrier since “they’d just go someplace else.” On the other hand, there are those who hold a contrary view, namely, that a switch to less lethal agents would reduce suicides or that when a person is unable to kill himself in a particular way it may be enough to tip the vital balance from death to life in a situation already characterized by strong ambivalence.”

Jeff’s situation was characterized by strong ambivalence. He was hit by a wave of hopelessness on that November 9th afternoon, but exactly a week earlier, he was extremely excited to go to the Knicks game with his friends.

Three days earlier, he was texting us to pick up his favorite “Classic Triple” and fries from Wendy’s, and three HOURS before he died, he asked Carey why we didn’t have any tomatoes in the house for the turkey sandwich he had for lunch that day.

classsic triple and fries

This was not a guy who was hell bent on killing himself. Yes, he had suicidal thoughts, but something triggered that feeling of temporary despair on November 9th. Had he been stopped that day, Seiden’s study strongly suggests he’d be alive right now. I believe that with all my heart. Hardware suicide barriers, through their very presence, make committing suicide by jumping virtually impossible.

Jeff would be alive today if the Bear Mountain Bridge had had such barriers in place when he got there on that wretched day in 2010. The results of Seiden’s study make that perfectly clear:

“What this table discloses is that after 26-plus years the vast majority of GGB suicide attempters (about 94%) are still alive or have died from natural causes.”

And the study’s concluding paragraph:

“The major hypothesis under test, that Golden Gate Bridge attempters will surely and inexorably “just go someplace else,” is clearly unsupported by the data. Instead, the findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature. Accordingly, the justification for prevention and intervention such as building a suicide prevention barrier is warranted and the prognosis for suicide attempters is, on balance, relatively hopeful.”

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On June 27th, 2014, more than 3 1/2 decades after Richard Seiden’s study validated the effectiveness of suicide barriers, the Board that governs the Golden Gate Bridge voted unanimously to approve a $76 million funding plan for installation of steel-cable nets, 20 feet beneath the east and west edges of the bridge, that are intended to deter people from leaping to their deaths or catch them if they try. Once absorbed by the net, there will be no way out until help arrives. Here is the final design layout for the nets.

golden gate bridge safety nets

Construction is expected to be completed in 2020. Though way too late to save the over 1,600 people who have jumped to their deaths from this bridge, it is reasonable to believe that once the nets are in place, there may never again be another suicide death from the Golden Gate Bridge.

That may sound like a bold statement, but it’s really not.  Prior to 1998, two to three people per year had been jumping to their deaths from the Munster Terrace cathedral in Bern, Switzerland. After a safety net was built, there have been no suicides there since 1998.  Zero.

And they won’t likely just go someplace else. In Washington, D.C., erection of barriers on the Duke Ellington Bridge did not increase suicides on the nearby, and unprotected, William Howard Taft Bridge.

Finally, in an analysis of all of the research done on suicide barriers around the world, a study by a University of Melbourne, Australia professor found that after barriers were installed, there was an 86 percent decrease in the number of suicides at the barrier site. And, overall, there was a net decrease in the number of jumping suicides in surrounding areas.

Suicide barriers work and I will advocate for them for the rest of my life.

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Kevin Hines, the man who 16 years ago thought he wanted to die but realized instantly after jumping that that really wasn’t the case, has done a lot of living ever since. He’s an award-winning global speaker, best-selling author, documentary filmmaker, and suicide prevention and mental health advocate.  And in 2013, Hines released his bestselling memoir titled “Cracked Not Broken, Surviving and Thriving After A Suicide Attempt.”  He sits on the Boards of the International Bipolar Foundation, the Bridge Rail Foundation and the Mental Health Association of San Francisco.

Hines’ story inspires and torments me at the same time. In my darkest moments, I envision Jeff in the air experiencing instant regret but realizing he would not survive. No Thanksgiving with family in two weeks, no Christmas, and no more March Madness. In those final seconds, I’m certain it all flashed before him.

Thinking about where Jeff would be and what he’d be doing now, at age 29, is all useless conjecture, but I know in my heart he would have made a difference in whatever he chose to pursue.  He touched everyone he knew with his kindness, sense of humor and zest for life, which he had until his last two months. Just like Hines, if Jeff had survived his jump, he would have thrived and shared his story to try to help others.

People who either think about or attempt suicide don’t want to die. They just want to end their pain, and there are many constructive ways to work on doing that. I pray that those who struggle, as a result of increased suicide awareness and prevention efforts, will come to realize that and never put themselves in the horrific position of experiencing instant regret.

Kevin Hines is one of only 34 people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge. Every effort must be made to build barriers at all bridges and take away other lethal means from the suicide attempters of the future who, without intervention, will not be so lucky.

–Rich Klein

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