Don’t jump, don’t jump, don’t jump

To face the dark water below the bridge is to face death, and this has a certain dramatic flair.

by John Hoff

Some bridges are attractive to people who want to commit suicide. It appears the Washington Avenue Bridge has become

that kind of bridge. Wouldn’t it make sense to install some cost-effective, anti-suicide measures?

More emergency phones? Barriers? Something?

How many people have jumped off this bridge to their deaths? Recent examples are Sudi Abdi, 24, and Halima Mohamed, 26. According to one University police official, discussing Mohamed’s jump, “This happens three or four times a year. It’s a somewhat popular spot for this, unfortunately.”

How unfortunate, indeed. This problem needs attention before one more person plunges to their death and breaks the perfect record of no University students being killed, yet, this academic year.

(Keep up the excellent work, people.)

Naturally, our pretty and beloved Washington Avenue Bridge can’t compete with a place like the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, where the suicide count is around 1,218 and climbing.

The people who study this topic say there are five factors which contribute to a landmark becoming a suicide hot spot. Yes, five factors, like the five fingers on a hand that clutch the railing of a bridge, contemplating the distance to the bottom.

First, there is the issue of accessibility, which experts say is the biggest factor. Clearly, our bridge is incredibly accessible. Climbing over a barrier, at either the pedestrian or vehicular level, is no harder than climbing over a bike rack.

Finality is the second factor. Suicidal people want to choose a jumping spot where they will certainly die. Personally, I think the leap from our bridge doesn’t look particularly lethal and Mohamed took days to succumb to her injuries, but our bridge is apparently lethal enough.

Third is the Werther Effect. This is what happens when a place gains a reputation as a suicide landmark. Let’s face it: our bridge has the Werther Effect, which a researcher named after a novel called “The Sorrows of Young Werther.”

This book, by Goethe, is reportedly a moving masterpiece. It is also alleged to have caused a rash of suicides in Europe. Better, maybe, to read the Cliff’s Notes.

Grandeur is the forth suicide bridge factor. This concerns the beauty, the drama and allure of certain bridges. Our bridge has this, also. Sure, it’s not the Golden Gate, but the view from our bridge is spectacular, and the brightly painted student organization signs inside the bridge fill the structure with life and expressiveness.

To stand outside the rail and turn one’s back to the bridge is to turn one’s back on life itself. To face the dark water below the bridge is to face death, and this has a certain dramatic flair.

Personally, I think the bottom of the river right below the bridge is a mountain of nasty plastic pop bottles, oozing stinky mud and green algae. There are probably a few stolen bikes rusting into oblivion. Oh, and leeches. I’ll bet there are thousands of leeches. I can’t help but think a body left in the river for a few days would be in awful condition. All the same, the grandeur of our bridge is undeniable, even if there might be (as I suspect) an armada of leeches swarming, unseen, in the water below.

The fifth factor is “the herd mentality.” To me, it seems closely related to the Werther Effect, but it’s apparently a separate factor. Even in suicide, many people just want to fit in with the crowd. If your friend jumped from a bridge, would you do it, too? Some folks apparently answer “Which bridge?”

It is simplistic to just say, “Suicidal people are going to kill themselves anyway.” In 1978, a study of 515 people who were prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge found that only 6 percent went on to kill themselves. Furthermore, suicide barriers at the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building stopped those landmarks from continuing as suicide hot spots.

Even if I accepted the shallow argument that suicidal people are going to kill themselves anyway, must it happen in the middle of the campus in front of everybody?

I would suggest, first of all, there should be some bright yellow phones and some suicide hotline numbers on the exterior of the bridge, near the “leaping points” in the middle. Barricades that can balance the spectacular view with the need to protect human life should be erected.

Lastly, we need to get over social taboos which make it difficult to discuss suicide.

According to the United Nations, suicide kills more people than war and murder combined.

Well, not on our beautiful bridge, I say.

The Washington Avenue Bridge should be a symbol of life, not death, so let’s fix the problem.

John Hoff welcomes comments at [email protected].