I just returned from a whistle-stop speaking tour in New Zealand and Australia. While it was only a brief week-long trip, I brought back so many amazing memories of the people and places. The most indelible by far was Gap Park, just five miles outside Sydney. The park sits atop cliffs that outline the coast for miles on the city’s eastern side.
Just a couple hours earlier I presented on Zero Suicide and traced the history of the Golden Gate Bridge and the half-measures taken to stop individuals from climbing over its short rails. Afterward, a woman approached me to explain that her daughter had died at the Gap, and I knew I had to see it.
When I arrived, I took in the many signs and warnings about the dangers of the area, signs the woman’s daughter would have passed on her way to the edge. One sign read, “For your own safety do not climb over the fence.” Another warned of fines for doing so, and scattered about the area are twenty-two closed-circuit cameras to monitor activity and act as a “deterrent,” as well as provide quick emergency response when necessary. Recently, the Woollahra Municipal Council installed new, inwardly sloped fencing that is “difficult to scale from the pedestrian side.”
There are also many signs offering support. One sign at the park entrance reads, “Are you thinking of suicide?” An Emergency Phone reads, “You are not alone. Talk to someone you trust or call Lifeline,” and one push of a large round button elicits the immediate support of a counselor. A bright orange sign proclaims, “Hold onto HOPE. There is always HELP.”
However, there are also areas with little or no barrier to the cliffs, no signs for support. About 400 feet north of the main park site, I easily straddled an aged, two-foot fence. When I approached the edge of the cliffs, some 260 feet above the ocean, it occurred to me that jumping is not required. One can simply fall over the edge and disappear.
A year ago, I participated in Fear Factor, a game show in which participants attempt to beat their competitors by facing their fears. My first challenge was to hang from an upside-down Y-shaped bar 40 feet above the ground. When the floor dropped from below, I found myself struggling to hold on. My hands were sweaty, slipping on the bar. My muscles began to hurt, intense pain that became stronger and stronger as the seconds passed. I closed my eyes, relaxed my breathing, and repeated to myself, “One more second, one more second.” I wanted to hang on. That was my choice. Yet gravity and fatigue worked against me and I fell, forced to succumb to the pain — but even then, falling was not what I chose to do. I fell a split second after another competitor; he was eliminated, I was not. I had hung on long enough.
I spoke in a previous post about how people who die by suicide don’t choose to do it; rather, they succumb to the intense psychological anguish and desperation they are experiencing when all their supports and solutions fail. When individuals die by suicide at locations such as this, we call them “jumpers,” but I’m not sure this label is accurate because it reinforces the myth that their death was primarily a conscious choice. Such a label distances us from our responsibility and capability to prevent these deaths.
It may be that for some individuals who make the lonely trek up the steps to the park, the tunnel vision of repeated pain and darkness blocks out what their peripheral vision might have picked up — help and hope. Instead, their emotions are so constricted, they can only see what is right in front of them — steps leading up to the cliff’s edge — and they walk towards it, stand at the edge, and fall off.
In some cases, another person may be able to help someone see what exists in their periphery. Until 2012 when he died, Australian Don Richie came between those cliffs and hundreds of individuals who sought an end to their pain, often by inviting them into his home for a cup of tea. For a brief moment, he helped them see more than the tunnel of darkness ahead of them, and it was enough to change their fate.
We can also help individuals see past the darkness by blocking it, giving them no alternative but to focus on something else. In early 2011, work was completed on the construction of an eight-foot barrier on the George Washington Memorial Bridge (formerly Aurora Bridge) in Seattle, which effectively ended the structure’s status as one of the most frequent US sites for suicide.
While there are a number of helpful initiatives that undoubtedly save lives, I left Gap Park and its contiguous cliffs with the same thought I had following a visit to the Golden Gate Bridge. Individuals in enormous pain can find their way to the edge with relative ease.
One of the arguments over the decades has been that individuals intent on suicide will find another way if their access to high places is blocked. However, many other methods provide more opportunity for the mind’s security system to kick-in, for ambivalence to prompt a contact to emergency medical personnel. Not so here on these cliffs.
Clinical professionals frequently use the term “psychic distress” to describe what someone considering suicide is going through. My visit to Gap Park left me thinking that this phrase is much too antiseptic. It does not fully capture the pain, anguish, desperation, and isolation these individuals must feel as they stand at the edge. I thought again about the mother whose daughter died there. Perhaps her daughter didn’t “jump” so much as she fell.
Don Richie apparently thought that every suicide could be prevented, even up to the last moment. His belief led him to engage those at risk and he saved many lives. Washington State’s action to install a higher fence on the Aurora bridge has reduced deaths by suicide there to nearly zero. These inspiring examples are now influencing other fields, from Australian construction to American healthcare. People struggling with intense pain need the support to hold on, to not let go. Sometimes, one more second is all it takes.