60 life-changing minutes
May 11, 2013 10:14 AM   Subscribe

Now married and father to two, Kevin Berthia's life has changed dramatically in the 8 years since he climbed over the railing of the Golden Gate Bridge to take his own life. He probably would not have had that opportunity had it not been for the dedication of California Highway Patrolman Kevin Briggs, "The Guardian of the Golden Gate Bridge". Following the overwhelming response to the short documentary on Briggs' efforts to reach out--sometimes literally--to would-be jumpers, he got the opportunity to meet the young man whose life he saved in 2005.

Berthia was on hand to present the American Society for Suicide Prevention's Public Service Award, which Briggs accepted on behalf of the California Highway Patrol.

"Our success for intervening in a suicide attempt is about 80 percent to 90 percent," notes Captain Lisa Locati in the Yahoo documentary video. Adds Briggs, "I have never actually counted a number but it's been numerous people. Maybe 2 a month." Yet over the years, Briggs has only lost one to the water. Briggs' efforts earned him a mention in The New Yorker's 2003 in-depth look at the Golden Gate Bridge and its fatal attraction.

Despite fears that successful intervention in a suicide attempt is merely postponing the inevitable, research shows that outcomes like Berthia's are not unusual. "[S]uicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” observes Richard Seiden in the New Yorker piece. The author of Where Are They Now, a 1978 study of individuals who were prevented from completing suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. "If you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later." (See also the New York Times Magazine's 2008 piece "The Urge to End It All".)
posted by drlith (20 comments total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
Great post.

Jumpers are, among suicide risks, uniquely impulsive, and the erection of relatively unsophisticated barriers - whether physical or in the person of intervenors like Patrolman Briggs - is often enough to make them reconsider.

An ongoing natural experiment a few blocks from where I live illustrates this - a simple barrier erected along the Duke Ellington Bridge almost completely eliminated suicides from it; the Taft Bridge, which has no barriers and lies about 100 feet away, did not experience a concomitant rise in suicides. You'd think that if people were really committed to jumping, they'd just walk a block to the bridge with the chest-high barrier; but apparently being put off even momentarily from jumping was enough to convince most people to forgo suicide.
posted by downing street memo at 10:39 AM on May 11, 2013 [7 favorites]

I know that it's this guy's job to do this, but I am thankful that there are people who do this, and that he, specifically, was chosen. It sounds like he has done a lot of good.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:42 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

What a great story, thank you for posting.

One of the most haunting things from the very good documentary The Bridge was something said by one of the very few people to have survived the jump: he said that as he fell through the air, he was filled with regret and realized he hadn't truly wanted to die after all. I always wonder how many people who take that step and get a split second to reflect upon it before they die have a similar realization - it's almost too horrible to contemplate, the notion that even people who are certain they want to die would take it back if given the chance. I'm grateful that people like Briggs are there to give people the time to come to that realization before it's too late.
posted by something something at 10:48 AM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

is it about the bridge or the people who go there to jump? suicides were eliminated at the bridge, the bridge is now free of suicides. that's good for the bridge, nice going bridge
posted by nervousfritz at 10:58 AM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Suicide is often an impulsive act; if enough obstacles can be put in place between the perpetrator and the method, enough time will elapse in which they can think about what they are about to do and change their minds.
posted by Renoroc at 11:23 AM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

he said that as he fell through the air, he was filled with regret and realized he hadn't truly wanted to die after all.

That may be the same man who was quoted in a New Yorker article to the effect that "as soon as my hands left the railing and I started to fall, I saw that all my problems were totally fixable, except that I had just jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge"

It's really awful to think of that as someone's final thought.
posted by thelonius at 12:08 PM on May 11, 2013 [8 favorites]

"Our success for intervening in a suicide attempt is about 80 percent to 90 percent,"

That sounds like a very rewarding role in life. This man's dedication is really laudable.
posted by nickrussell at 12:21 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

What a great post. There is something about Kevin Briggs' manner of comporting himself that I find very reassuring.
posted by onlyconnect at 12:44 PM on May 11, 2013 [1 favorite]

I remember growing up heating of suicides jumping off the Golden Gate pretty routinely. The saying 'Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.' is true.
There are some people who are bound and determined. I think even they can be helped.
And yes, serious crisis does play into it.
Now murder-suicide, and suicide pacts I totally don't understand.
posted by Katjusa Roquette at 12:54 PM on May 11, 2013

Suicide is often an impulsive act; if enough obstacles can be put in place between the perpetrator and the method, enough time will elapse in which they can think about what they are about to do and change their minds.

Futher to this, one thing that I didn't really realize before is that nearly 4 in 5 suicide attempts are unsuccessful (based this study, which I've linked before, covering medically recorded suicide attempts in Illinois, 1990-97), with the rate of lethality varying greatly by method (see Table 1). Even forcing a determined person into another, potentially more survivable, method is likely to lead to fewer deaths.
posted by figurant at 1:09 PM on May 11, 2013

It also turns out, unsurprisingly, that one of the factors that makes a successful suicide exponentially more likely is having access to a gun.

"In another study, people who almost died in a suicide were asked how long after they decided to attempt suicide did they actually try it. Twenty-four percent said under 5 min. Two-thirds said under an hour. Only 16 percent said a day or more. "
posted by liketitanic at 1:34 PM on May 11, 2013 [6 favorites]

Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.

It never occurred to me that this had a more optimistic interpretation. I always assumed the "temporary problem" meant "being alive".
posted by the jam at 1:39 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

I thought the end of the film captured such an important element--being there for as long as it takes. Patience and moving at the speed of the "jumper" and not your own internal clock. Thanks for the post--feeling good without any bitter after taste.
posted by rmhsinc at 1:51 PM on May 11, 2013

I volunteer at Maytree, a London respite center for those in suicidal crisis.

I've been working there for a year and a half now and I still honestly don't understand why it works. You'd think if someone's life pain was bad enough for them to be haunting train platforms or taking overdoses, five days of supportive listening by volunteers armed with no psychoactive chemicals stronger than tea wouldn't make much of a dent. I certainly didn't think it would when I started working there.

I don't know what happens to the majority of the guests who stay with us -- statistically, some of them must go on to kill themselves -- but judging from the thank-you cards and emails we get, that one experience can be enough to turn a life around. Some former guests even come back to work with us as volunteers.

Compassionate crisis intervention works.
posted by stuck on an island at 2:00 PM on May 11, 2013 [19 favorites]

Great post. Regarding Human vs. Engineering intervention and the Golden Gate bridge in particular: the design for the envisioned suicide barrier net will finally be ready for review this year. Note, this design process started in 2005. This process has cost $5 Million dollars. The estimate to actually hang this net off this iconic bridge is already quoted as $45 Million. This post about humans helping humans shows us a better way.

I have always been a member of the camp that believed this net is yet another sad case for just how misguided the best intentions of our common warm hearts can be. I think our camp now has eight years of proof that we were right. If in 2005, the board had hired two suicide prevention experts - even at generous $100k a year salaries - to patrol the bridge when it's open for pedestrians - they would have eight years of human intervention and $3.4 Million remaining to fund such work going forward. They would have saved lives too.

Since most people don't take their families or friends with them to jump, it's pretty easy to spot individuals who are possible candidates for suicide on the bridge. I cross the bridge a lot and there are very few individuals wandering slowly and alone on it. They have cameras trained on every inch of the bridge already. I suspect within a year of astute behavioral observation, one expert could probably 'magically' be quietly trailing at the side of every potential suicide candidate long before they even get to the mid-span area where jumpers tend to climb the rail.

In our age of controlled isolation, we forget the power of a direct human "Hey! How are you stranger?" That alone might be enough to break the spell or at least start the dialogue before they even get to the rail. I'll put my bet on that over the cold embrace of a net dangling in the fog any day. On the internet a place you can catch people who might otherwise go unnoticed is called a 'honey pot' and this bridge is a real opportunity for those who truly care to put a system in place where we can find souls that are temporarily lost. The deterrent effect of the net will just push such individuals back into their quiet desperation pathways - where there is no opportunity for the community to intervene - to pills, guns etc...

We seem to have forgotten the logic that a human solution is better than an engineering solution if the cost for the later can pay for decades of the first. I don't look forward to reading about the first time someone determined enough to go over a rail also proves to be determined enough to find a way to craw to the edge of a $50 million dollar net.

So, I'll take this opportunity to say to the warm hearts with vast disposable income that might be reading these words... it's not to late to stop the delusion and start saving lives. The net-of-not-really-caring is going to be funded with your grants, non-profits and donations. If you want to save lives, your money should start some organization with a more human touch. Though suicide is intensely personal, how we deal with it as a society is a point of illumination on how we deal with each other in less dramatic moments. We have come to believe that hardware is the answer to all our human needs. Yet, no amount of hardware can solve anything if we are not willing to reach out and take the time to listen to each other. In this case, we need a return to the human touch rather than a new iconic symbol of just how uncaring we have become towards our fellows on this shared journey.
posted by astrobiophysican at 2:10 PM on May 11, 2013 [11 favorites]

astrobiophysican: Why not both?

One sad truth is that engineering solutions are harder to cut from austerity budgets. I'm sure we both wish this weren't the case, but if there is currently political will to build a net, let's build a net and fight for the other solutions, too.
posted by Skwirl at 2:22 PM on May 11, 2013 [4 favorites]

Why not both? Eliminating unnecessary and expensive projects reduces the overall pressure on the budget (thus lessening the need for austerity). It is the responsibility of politicians to make these opportunity cost based decisions and give us what is in fact better for us (especially since it costs less). $50 million not spent on the net is $50 million that will probably be better used elsewhere.

I also think the honey pot idea is important. The Golden Gate bridge draws people. It is an opportunity to intervene that you don't get in cases where people choose to leave us from the comfort of their homes. The more we pad the world, the more likely people will be to resort to ways where there are not opportunities to intervene.

So, my point is the net kills the honey pot that - combined with compassionate intervention - would save lives. So the $50 Million net will have the net effect of more lives lost since you won't be able to afford compassionate intervention and people will be more likely to hang themselves in the privacy of their own home unless they are hell bent on climbing over a net which is just a more emphatic deterrent than the rail that is already there.
posted by astrobiophysican at 2:39 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

drlith: ""Our success for intervening in a suicide attempt is about 80 percent to 90 percent," notes Captain Lisa Locati in the Yahoo documentary video."

In my job, ideation or attempts to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge are so distressingly common that we just usually initial it "joggb" to save time. There's an unfortunately high "false positive" rate of people dragged off the bridge. There's a subset of well-known people with so many repeated "attempts" that they have had injunctions served against them by SF and Marin courts such that setting foot on the bridge counts as a violation and they are usually intercepted by the bridge patrols quite early. There's another subset of quite impulsive people, usually younger, who are brought in after climbing over the ped barrier but who strongly deny actual intent to jump, usually pointing to some recent relationship stressor that necessitated a dramatic display. I'm more careful with those people given that even if what they think they are saying is true, without a proper net to catch them then in the event of an accidental dislodge during the whole talkdown drama they would have been goners.

And there's a few who've actually jumped, deliberately, and survived some quite significant injuries, yet still haven't managed to turn their lives around. That's the saddest part.

This recent Slate article about the economics of suicide pertains.
posted by meehawl at 3:46 PM on May 11, 2013 [2 favorites]

is it about the bridge or the people who go there to jump? suicides were eliminated at the bridge, the bridge is now free of suicides. that's good for the bridge, nice going bridge

I think you're misinterpreting the success of intervention with the overall rate of suicides, which don't always take place when an intervenor is nearby. Last year, the number was 30, which is consistent with the rate in recent years.

Obviously the bridge authority and others are chagrined at the fact that they would like to operate a landmark transportation facility and tourist attraction, but I don't think it's fair to say that suicide intervention is just about the reputation of the place.
posted by dhartung at 4:28 PM on May 11, 2013

My great grandmother was the first woman to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge and my mother, a very little girl at the time, remembers the newspaper reporters being camped out on her family's front lawn and badgering her parents for comment.

Since then, of course, the press has stopped reporting suicides with the same fervor to avoid glamorizing the victims and motivating others to take their lives. But Tad Friend's New Yorker piece notes that the rate remains unchanged since most news organizations adopted "no publicity" policies. When a friend killed himself last year--someone who, not incidentally, played a leadership role in his community's suicide prevention organization--the family opted to seek as much publicity as possible, including sharing their grief and bewilderment, in hopes of encouraging ideators to seek help. Hopefully these efforts succeeded, but they may also fuel such thinking as "They'll miss me when I'm gone."

Somehow I intuit that tales of regret from survivors of suicide attempts, regardless of the means, would be the most persuasive... but how to obtain empirical evidence?
posted by carmicha at 3:41 PM on May 12, 2013 [2 favorites]

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