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Tomasz Szymanski/istock

He who hesitates is saved

Health | September is National Suicide Prevention Month, and a grisly statistic is in the news: Some 32,000 Americans kill themselves in a typical year, about twice the number who die by homicide. Could physical and psychological barriers save lives?

Issue: "Northern light," Sept. 20, 2008

Parent advisory: This article includes descriptions of the results of suicide.

What goes through the minds of suicide perpetrators and victims during their last seconds of thought? Journalist Scott Anderson ended a New York Times article two months ago ("The Urge to End It All," July 6) with a quotation from Kevin Hines, one of 29 people known to have jumped from the Golden Gate Bridge without dying: "I'll tell you what I can't get out of my head. It's watching my hands come off that railing and thinking to myself, 'My God, what have I just done?' Because I know that almost everyone else who's gone off that bridge, they had that exact same thought at that moment."

Anderson estimates that 2,000 men and women have jumped from the Golden Gate and died. California clinical psychiatrist Richard Seiden obtained a police list of 515 would-be jumpers pulled off the bridge, conducted extensive research, and found that only 6 percent of those kept from killing themselves went on to commit suicide. Seiden allowed that some suicides might have been mislabeled as accidents, but that correction only raised the total to 10 percent: "90 percent of them got past it. They were having an acute temporary crisis, they passed through it and, coming out the other side, they got on with their lives."

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Seiden said that suicide attempters "get fixated. They decide they're going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge, but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don't look around for another place to do it. They just retreat." Seiden told of one man on the Golden Gate's eastern promenade who fixated on jumping from the western side but didn't do it because he feared that a car would hit him as he made his way across six lanes of traffic.

Anderson concluded that suicide is an overwhelmingly impulsive act: One study of survivors found that 70 percent think about it for less than an hour before trying it. Anderson reported on the work of David Hemenway, who directs the Injury Control Research Center at the Harvard School of Public Health: Hemenway and his team, focusing on the "how" of suicide, have learned that "if you can somehow remove or complicate a method, you have the potential of saving a tremendous number of lives."

Some officials, therefore, are pushing for barriers on the Golden Gate and other popular suicide sites. Some search for other physical ways to "remove or complicate a method." What's missing from the literature, though, perhaps because it's so politically incorrect, is the usefulness of psychological warfare: Make descriptions of suicide, now airbrushed, once more sickening. Make the character of those who commit suicide, now the subject of sympathy, the object of intense scorn.

We know how this can be done because up to a century ago newspapers readily did it. Although the late 19th century may have been a "Victorian Age" in which "legs" became "limbs" and "breasts" were tucked away as "bosoms," blood and guts reporting dominated suicide coverage. For instance, the Dallas News described relatives finding a "lifeless body still warm seated in a chair with the top of his head blown off, the blood and brains scattered around the room." The Atlanta Constitution described "blood oozing from the gaping wound" after another shooting.

Even newspapers not known for sensationalism were vivid in their treatment of those who leaped from buildings or in front of trains. The New York Tribune reported that one jumper's "brains were scattered over the flagstones," and that another "fell three stories and struck her head foremost, almost smashing her entire skull. She lay there for about 10 minutes before she was seen. By that time an immense quantity of blood had flowed from the body and trickled into the gutter." The New York Times described a man who jumped in front of a subway train: "His head was knocked clean off." The Times said of another suicide, "His throat was cut, there was a foam on his lips, and his eyes stared wildly."

Newspapers also tended to report the physical remains of suicide: A "mangled body," a "crushed and bleeding form," and so on. Would a person thinking of drowning himself think twice after reading that fish had eaten the face of a man who committed suicide in a lake? Would a man thinking of killing himself in a forest rethink his decision when he read of a man hanging himself and not being found for several weeks, by which time "the lower part of the body had evidently been eaten away by animals"?

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