"It sounds crass, but to the media, it's no big deal. Unless we block traffic for four hours, it doesn't get in the paper. That's sad. It is a big deal," Hirsch said. "I disagree with the copycat-suicide theory. People who are despondent are going to do whatever they need to do to get that feeling of pain away from them."
Education, rather than silence, is the antidote to reduce suicide, Hirsch said. In his experience, many suicidal individuals say their families would be better off without them — at least they would receive money from any life-insurance policies. "A lot of people don't realize that suicide isn't covered by life insurance." Like many police officers who find themselves talking to people threatening suicide, Hirsch tries to connect quickly, use first names, and identify a topic that seems to induce a calming effect.
Senior officer Dominick Boccia's 12-year stint with the San Diego Harbor Police indicates the prevalence of suicide throughout the city. After joining the force in 1988, the first day he was assigned to a boat, Boccia helped pull the body of a Coronado bridge-jumper from the bay. Breaking the grimness of that routine task over the years was the time Boccia rescued a woman who actually recovered from the fall. Boccia has also talked a few people out of jumping.
Although harbor police are mostly associated with water and marinas, Boccia has investigated myriad suicides on port property. They range from some people who shot themselves to others who have jumped from the top floors of resort hotels to one victim who — Anna Karenina-style — threw himself under a moving train. During a two-week period in July, Boccia joined other law enforcement in responding to an unusual number of calls involving suicides and attempts. They included: a man who tried to jump from the Coronado bridge, another man who killed himself doing so, a woman who slit her wrists on two different occasions, a man who stepped in front of a rental-car bus, and a transient who threatened to stab himself in the San Diego County administration building.
Regardless of the method, said Piedad Garcia, clinical director of San Diego County Mental Health Services, suicide is a violent act. "It's a very strong statement of how a person feels. People who commit suicide are not only very angry at themselves but also angry at the world around them."
Garcia oversees treatment of 30,000 mentally ill adults in San Diego County, nearly all of whom depend on public assistance. County residents who attempt suicide are often taken to the agency's psychiatric hospital for evaluation. If they have their own medical insurance, they are transferred to private facilities elsewhere. Suicide accounts for a tiny portion of Garcia's work, but she sees special symbolism in the Coronado bridge.
"People who really want to commit suicide — at the bridge's highest point — know that they will die. People who jump on either side, at the beginning or the end, might have a tendency to survive. Bridges connect one side to another," Garcia said. "People who commit suicide lack connections with their next of kin, with their lovers, with their friends. They're feeling at a distance."
In a little-known instance of serendipity, Garcia once helped make connections for a young man she spotted — through peripheral vision — sitting on the ledge of the Coronado bridge. At the time, about 15 years ago, Garcia was driving with a fellow psychologist from her home in Coronado to a play in San Diego. She looked in the rearview mirror. The young man's legs dangled over the edge. He rocked back and forth. He held a large bottle of beer. Garcia stopped, backed up her car, and started talking. She tried English, then Spanish. "He was crying, crying, crying." She quickly gleaned that the young Hispanic had recently lost his girlfriend, cared about his mother, and believed in God.
So Garcia connected by using the term "la fe," or faith in Spanish. She built a soothing, mantra-like theme: "Faith that things will be better, faith that things can change, faith that bad things will pass." Meanwhile, through her peripheral vision, Garcia noticed traffic had ceased and police officers surrounded her. In addition, she felt the bridge sway in the wind. "It was eerie."
The young man slid on the ledge toward Garcia and extended his hand. A policeman she couldn't see stood behind her, whispering instructions, advising her not to take the man's hand. "It was very surreal to me." After persuading the man to dismount the ledge, Garcia realized, "If I gave him my hand, he could have pulled me over."
Rescuers such as Garcia, Hirsch, and Hutchins seldom learn the outcome of potential suicide victims, and more rarely have contact afterwards. Although Boyd sometimes wondered about the man he saw tumble into the bay, he was surprised ten years later to hear the man wanted to meet him. Boyd was even more surprised by the man's expression of gratitude, given that police don't often receive any thanks for their intervention. "He had his child with him. He thanked me for caring. The thing that makes me feel good is that he turned his life around," Boyd said. "Life is very valuable." *
San Diego County Mental Health Services has a contract with United Behavioral Health to operate a toll-free hot line 24 hours a day. Many telephone calls concern Medi-Cal authorizations for mental-health services. But the hot line also serves people who feel suicidal, suffer from mental illness, or face other crises. The number is 800-479-3339.