PsychiatryTalk

More on Suicide Jumpers: The Movie

Posted on January 6th, 2010 by Dr. Blumenfield

This past November 11ththe title of my weekly blog was Suicide Jumpers From the Golden Gate Bridge. It was based on an article in the American Journal of Psychiatry that analyzed the phenomena  of the large numbers of people jumping from a place  where more people kill themselves than any other in the world.

One of the comments that I received on the blog was from Dr. David Goldberg a psychologist from Birmingham, Alabama who noted that there was a powerful and chilling documentary film titled  The Bridge about this group of people.  I put this DVD on my Netflix queue and just recently viewed it.

The Making of the Movie

In 2003 Eric Steele a film maker living in New York read an article  in the New Yorker titled Jumpers by Tad Friend which described the unsuccessful 50 year campaign to put a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge to prevent suicides. Steele imagined the human misery that people must be going through as they take their last walk and became inspired to make this film. He gathered the huge amount of equipment that was necessary for this project and journeyed to San Francisco. The BridgeHe placed ads in venues like Craig’s List and gathered a film crew who, while  impressed with the filmmaker, had some trepidations about the project. After obtaining all the permits needed and teaching the novice camera people about the technique, they first encountered the National Guard who thought they were terrorists with 9/11 only two years behind them. After this misunderstanding was clarified they  trained their cameras on the bridge and set up their death watch for the entire year.

24 People Committed Suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in 2004

In the year 2004, 24 men and women died from the tremendous impact of hurling themselves from the Golden Gate Bridge. Many of these people were filmed as they took their last walk and their final fatal action.images-2 Some appeared to ponder the meaning of their anticipated suicide as they stared at the water or the beautiful San Francisco’s skyline  for varying amounts of time  before lifting themselves over the railing. One man made several cell phone calls before going over. Some appeared to be flailing as they fell, one dove like a bird, another fell backward and  one woman was grabbed back to safety before she could jump by a nearby tourist who happened to be taking pictures

The Fatal Jump and the Pain of Family and Friends Captured on Film

The end result of this project was a beautiful and poignant film, which not only captured the last moments of these troubled folk’s  lives but also was able to tell their stories and show the impact on the people who knew them. The filmmakers were able to gain access to many of the families and friends of the ill-fated twenty four people who ended their own lives. They created an atmosphere where these people seemed very comfortable talking to the film makers and talk they did.

As I watched the 94 minute movie unfold, I was initially listening with my clinical ear. This person obviously was schizophrenic, that person had a bipolar condition and another person was a methamphetamine user. It registered on me how many were taking their medications or appeared to be under vigilant psychiatric care. Others seemed to be making the decision to jump after they stopped their medication. One woman couldn’t sleep because of side effects of medications. Were they giving clues as to their intent? Was there a history of a cry for help.? At first I was thinking to myself wouldn’t this film be ideal to show to mental health professionals because it has so many good clinical vignettes.

But probably a images-3quarter of the way into the film, I easily put aside my intellectual analytic approach as I felt the emotions of  the personal stories. I became  acutely aware of the continued  suffering of the victims who eventually chose to go over the rail and so much of the deep pain of those who knew them quite well. My heart would race as the camera scanned the faces of those looking out into the abyss, never knowing which one would be the one who could bear living no longer and would suddenly lift themselves up and leap into the water. I was deeply saddened as I heard the parents who understood the hopelessness of their child who ultimately took the plunge. I could feel the frustration of the people  who had dealt with previous suicidal threats of friends but didn’t think that they would ever do the deed. Although no clinicians of the jumpers were interviewed I could empathize with the therapists who must have know that some of these people were chronic suicidal risks but had chosen or felt that they had no choice but to do their best to treat then as outpatients.

The Story of One Who Survived the Jump

Probably the most dramatic part of the film was an interview with a 25 year old man who survived a jump from the bridge and ultimately became a spokesperson for suicide prevention. He had a bipolar disorder and was suicidal many times before and had depressive episodes at least three times after the jump. His story was similar in many ways to the case reported in the journal article I mentioned at the beginning of this blog but was actually a different person. Bridge survivor The moment he let go of the rail of the bridge and began his descent, he regretted his decision. He miraculously successfully positioned himself to hit the water in a survival position although going probably at least 120mph . He fractured bones and vertebrae and his initial survival was apparently aided by a seal which held on to his body while rescuers were arriving. There also was an interview with his father who received the word that his son jumped from the bridge that should be inevitably fatal but he was told he was alive. He will never get over what has happened that day nor will all those who knew the other fatal jumpers. Most will get on with their lives, some with therapy, some without but no one will forget .

It is All on Netflix With Three Special Features

Netflix DVDs often have some extra features which in this case consisted of an interview with the filmmaker Eric Steel, another of a brief public service announcement for suicide prevention by the guy who survived the jump and a third piece which were interviews with the young men and one women who were the camera crew over this year project. They did not quite realize what they in for when they signed up for this gig. They told of their initial experiences of scanning the faces of so many “suspicious“ people who  might be potential jumpers, as they had  one finger on the their cell phone connected with speed dial to the bridge police and the other on the camera button. They did capture the last moments of people jumping from bridge which appeared to have a profound impact on them. One of them said that he is  sure they will live with that experience for the rest of their lives.

Impact on  the Camera Crew

Those of us in the mental health field know how dealing with traumatic events can have a long lasting effect on the observers. We sometimes set up group discussions for the helpers and on occasion some personal therapy may be useful for such caretakers. At various times in the past I was involved in providing such services for members of our burn unit at a hospital where I worked as well as nurses working with dialysis and transplant patients and also various personnel including members of the media after the World Trade Center attack in New York. We know that most people have the resiliency to come through such  event without requiring formal therapy but it should be Bridge editavailable when needed.

While this camera crew may carry indelible memories of what they have seen, they have also , helped to make these tragic events a little bit more understandable to the people who see this film whether they be lay people or mental health professionals. So in some way they have allowed the abrupt tragic ending of troubled lives to have some beneficial meaning to future generations.

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