Last month, the Senate Select Committee on Mental Health held a hearing in San Francisco on suicide education and prevention – shining an always-uncomfortable spotlight on our reputation as the top destination for suicide tourism in the world.
The Golden Gate Bridge has an average of one jump every two weeks. In 2008, 34 people are believed to have jumped; in 2009, 31 reportedly jumped; and in 2010 the number was 32.
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The hearing’s committee featured individuals, organizations, Senators, state agencies, San Francisco Suicide Prevention, and researchers who spoke in support of developing a comprehensive statewide plan against suicide.
One of the people who spoke was Kevin Hines – a Golden Gate Bridge suicide attempt survivor and suicide prevention advocate.
He recounted the mental health issues and subsequent events that led to his suicide attempt at 19. Hines is the author of new book Cracked Not Broken: Surviving and Thriving After a Suicide Attempt, and tours the US speaking as a prevention advocate, with an emphasis on prevention through mental health services and support.
But this was not the first time Hines had told his story in a high pressure environment in San Francisco.
I first saw Hines when I went to the screening for documentary The Bridge during the 2006 SF International Film Fest. Hines was in Eric Steel’s harrowing film, by far the most honest, nonjudgemental and purely naked presentation of San Francisco’s biggest dirty little secret.
In 2004, Steel’s film crew sat with cameras recording nonstop on both sides of the Golden Gate Bridge for an entire year. They changed tape every hour. They filmed 23 suicides; missed one and caught on film a man saving a girl from jumping by physically hauling her up by her jacket.
Before the SFIFF screening, a number of people outside the Kabuki staged a demonstration, holding signs and calling The Bridge a snuff film. The film in and of itself is remarkable – and upon release was condemned as tragedy tourism and even called ‘an abomination’ by critics.
Warning: description of Eric Steel’s film The Bridge and its documented suicide attempts to follow.
The Bridge opens with what is some of the most stunning video I’ve ever seen of the bridge and bay (and the film is full of beauty), but not far into the beginning you realize that the cameras are not watching the scenery, but rather people on the bridge.
When I realized this, my heart started to race. It could be anyone, any of the people I’m watching walk along our beautiful bridge that could be readying to jump – and I was going to see it. Every new person I saw onscreen instantly became suspicious, and I found myself trying to second guess the motives of each person looking at the view, or talking on their cell phone.
This is the exact same anguish the film crew went through never knowing when, or who. In the film’s Q & A after the screening, Steel explained that no matter what they did, theorized or tried to look for, there was no way the film crew could predict exactly who would try to jump or not. He also noted that the camera crew had their cell phones on speed dial to the bridge authorities, and in doing so foiled six near suicides. Yet during their continuous year of filming, only two bystanders lifted a finger to try and stop someone from jumping.
The Golden Gate Bridge is 25 stories above the Bay; 98% of the people who jump are killed. We learn in the film that those who jump always leap off the horizon side of the bridge, and never the inland (Bay) side.
When the film’s first suicide lept into the icy San Francisco Bay waters, the entire theater gasped – an average-looking guy simply hopped up on the orange railing, sat for a minute, and loped off to splash into the water.
The film crew interviewed local kite surfers who were in the water below at that very minute, and their mental process around realization, then action, and how they have learned to live with what they saw – and how they reacted. The Bridge was just as much about the people surviving (as in those left behind), as it was about the people who ended their lives.
The film included one failed attempt, when a boy jumped and survived by landing upright, and then was miraculously kept afloat by a female Bay seal until his rescue by the Coast Guard.
That boy was Kevin Hines.
After screening in a packed, volatile theater, Kevin Hines and his father came onstage at the Kabuki – in happy tears.
In the film, Hines had recounted reaching the point of suicide – and how after standing at the bridge weeping openly for a long time getting ready to jump, a tourist interrupted him to ask if he could take a photo of her.
All of the participants in The Bridge agreed to be on camera in hopes that their participation might help someone, or at least raise awareness about what goes on here.
Yet I think the real story being told is in the background of each horrifying frame when someone jumped: joggers. Walkers. People just keep going. Only two people said, “hey, are you okay?”
The point of The Bridge was to raise awareness, and to add weight to the ongoing fight to have a suicide barrier installed on the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the 1940s, there have been nine attempts to install a suicide prevention barrier on the bridge – which was something that was in architect Joseph Strauss’ original plans for the bridge (he designed the railings to be six feet tall specifically to discourage jumpers).
But ultimately, I think that a barrier is only ever going to be a railing that is in someone’s way – someone who the film helped me understand is actually living behind a barrier of loneliness, isolation, and a real need for unattainable help, understanding and connection.