Someone to talk to at the edge of darkness

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 18 September, 2007, 12:00am

New York

We all know we should strive for the heights if we want a better future. But sometimes those who don't want a future at all climb to the highest point and jump into eternal darkness.

In New York City, jumping is one of the most popular ways people choose to end their stressful lives. While the greater prevalence of guns in some other cities makes shooting oneself an easy option, in the Big Apple skyscrapers such as the Empire State Building and dozens of bridges, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, offer a popular route to death. Among the 481 people who committed suicide in the city in 2005, almost a quarter did so by jumping.

Now New York state has brought its suicide-prevention efforts to the point of no return for these tortured souls in a concerted attempt to pull them back at the last moment.

In the past three months, authorities have installed suicide-prevention hotlines on five bridges in the state so that people thinking of leaping have one last opportunity to pick up the phone and speak to a suicide-prevention counsellor. Even if the conversation doesn't go well, the call may still allow the police to get to the bridge in time to try other ways of preventing a death. Already three lives are known to have been saved thanks to the new service.

'Suicide is largely preventable. People think they have some severe problems and they don't see a better option. But if you give them that option, most of them will take it. That's what these phones do,' said John Bellucci, director of planning for the state's Bridge Authority, which controls five bridges crossing the Hudson River.

Mr Bellucci's agency pioneered the idea in 1984 when it installed a radio phone on the Mid-Hudson Bridge, which is directly linked to a mental health service near the structure. The results have been impressive. At least 85 people have gone to the bridge with suicidal intent in the past 23 years. Among them, 78 people picked up the phone and only one of those people jumped. Among the seven who did not pick up the phone, six jumped.

But the other four bridges are in remote areas and there aren't any crisis centres nearby. So the programme hadn't been expanded until this June, when it became easier to use wireless technology to install phones in remote areas.

The success of these hotlines has now triggered broader interest. At the end of last month, the state's Thruway Authority, which controls 800 bridges, installed four such phones at the Tappan Zee Bridge, the highest bridge in the state, where 27 people have plunged to their deaths in the past 10 years. And the Metropolitan Transit Authority, which controls some of the bridges in New York City, is now working on a similar programme. Indeed, Mr Bellucci said he was also getting inquiries from authorities in other states and Canada. 'The thing is now going international,' he said.

The programme has become a talking point online. Bloggers have questioned whether the humiliation of calling a marked suicide hotline in public could aggravate the caller's depression and push them over the edge.

Alan Ross, executive director of the Samaritans, which provides suicide-prevention services in New York City, disagrees. Mr Ross said 45,000 people in the city called suicide hotlines asking for help last year. 'More access to hotlines is always better for crisis prevention,' he said.