Why the stigma of suicide should not sway the debate about nets under the Golden Gate Bridge

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Last week I read some encouraging news about the decades-long push by suicide prevention advocates to construct a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge that would stop people from jumping to their deaths.

After 40 years of debate, Caltrans and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission appear ready to contribute $44 million toward installing giant nets under the 1.7-mile span, according to news reports. The Golden Gate Bridge district would need to kick in as much $12 million in toll funds. It's an option bridge district directors have long opposed, but increased public and political pressure appears to be making a difference.

What struck me the most about these recent reports was the buried news angle: 2013 was a record year for the number of suicides — 46 confirmed deaths. While officials have not kept exact numbers on the total number of deaths since the bridge was built, estimates are as as high as 2,000.

The media are often hesitant to report on the issue of suicide to avoid copycat incidents, which is what the Centers for Disease Control recommends in its report, Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide. It recommends avoiding ongoing or prominent coverage of suicide and leaving out details about the method of suicide. It even suggests reporters not focus on the positive attributes of someone who committed suicide to avoid glorifying those who end their lives.

While I understand the logic behind such recommendations, I also worry that by not reporting more comprehensively on suicides, the news media only reinforce the stigma and contempt many people have for those who take their own life.

When I last wrote about this issue in May 2012, it was the 75th anniversary of the bridge, and one particular story in the San Francisco Chronicle's online site, SFGate, reported on the increase in jumps at the time. Reader comments opposing the building of the estimated $45 million barrier were numerous — and they were the same ones that were made when the barrier was first proposed.

I was taken aback by how callous and offensive so many of the comments were.

"Biggest waste of $45 million ever. Let 'em swim," wrote one SFGate reader back in July.

Similar sentiments were expressed in last week's stories about the funding package for the barrier coming closer to reality: "It's dumb to blame an inanimate object for the choices made by people, and worse to force all the rest of us to bear the cost. If certain people want a barrier, let them fund it themselves," wrote a reader in response to a San Jose Mercury News story.

There were also comments about a suicide barrier being a waste of money because of a common belief that those deterred from jumping off the bridge would find some other way of killing themselves, which studies show is not the case.

Larry Wallack, a former UC Berkeley public health professor who now teaches at Portland State University and was once part of a coalition formed to advocate for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, explained why such sentiments are so pervasive and how they remain a major challenge in suicide prevention efforts.

"The fact that people are more concerned about the beauty of the bridge or the attractiveness of the view than the relatively small costs of intervention reflects the greater public health struggle we all face," he said. "This is compounded by the fact that there is a great stigma on suicide, still. For the most part, there is little sympathy for people who take their own lives."

Sadly, I know too well what Wallack is talking about. On July 17, 2008, my brother Ramiro Quintero hung himself from a rafter of a friend's garage where he had been staying. I don't know — or can't remember — what led to his homelessness. I knew he suffered from depression and did not have access to mental health services. One of his last calls to me was filled with the kind of bellowing sobbing that I've heard only one other time in my life — when my mother cried before his open casket at his funeral.

My oldest brother, Hector, called with the news late at night, when bad news usually arrives. The next day, I called my best friend to give him the news. After a bit of silence — obviously uncomfortable with the topic at hand — he proceeded to ask me about the weather in Florida, where I was working as a reporter at the time.

I called another close friend, whose response was trite though concise: "He was a troubled soul," she said.

I soon learned firsthand just how much stigma there is around suicide. Other friends I told responded as my two closest friends had, either with visible discomfort or platitudinous consolations. No sympathy cards in the mail. No phone calls or texts.

Recently, I talked about Ramiro when my primary care physician was going through her standard list of family medical history.

"Any deaths in the family?"

"My father."

"What did he die of?"

"Heart disease."

"And my mother. She had Alzheimer's and Lupus."

"And my brother."

"What did he die of?"

"He committed suicide."

"Oh. Do you know if you've had your Hepatitis vaccinations ..."

If my own physician couldn't get past the stigmatization of suicide, how can we expect a public dialogue about the need for prevention support?

I'm haunted almost daily by thoughts about the last minutes of my brother's life on earth. What sort of anguish overcame him? Did he cry or was he somehow at peace with what he was about to do? Did he think of his family, his children, or anyone in particular?

Little by little, I've learned to replace those thoughts with joyful memories of Ramiro: Riding on the back of his motorcycle through the country roads of western Fresno County, where we grew up. Ramiro swiping my other brother's driver's license from his wallet so he and his girlfriend could take me to my first disco my junior year in high school, one of the most magical nights of my youth. Ramiro being the only one in my family in the audience during a nerve-wrecking performance of my Mexican folkloric dance troupe when I was in college.

While society may deem his life meaningless and wasted because he chose to end it, it's up to me and my family to bring significance to his life by refusing to give in to the stigma and shame. It would behoove suicide prevention advocates to do the same. Gaining further public support for a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge will require more than debunking the myth that people kept from jumping off the bridge would find some other way of ending their lives. It will also require bringing dignity back to those who suffer the most tragic consequence of mental illness.

This blog also appears on AlterNet.org.

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