Suicide Is Dangerous

Last week’s New York Times Magazine had an interesting article on suicide by Scott Anderson. At the outset, it should be noted that his article is basically about people that jump off bridges or buildings to commit suicide, “jumpers”. (John Grohol writes “Suicide Barriers Are Effective” here.) It’s always an important topic: Roughly 32,000 people commit suicide yearly in the United States. That makes it the 11th most common cause of death among adults.

This has to be less than 8 percent of all suicides. The rough breakdown of method according to U.S. statistics of suicide (2005) is: Firearms – 52 percent; hanging, strangling, suffocation – 22 percent; poison – 18 percent; all other methods – 8 percent. In fact here’s what they say at

Although many believe that jumping off a building or bridge (or falling) is a common suicide method (because when it happens there usually is a lot of news coverage about it), in actuality only about 2% of all suicides occur by this method.

Back to Anderson. He wonders why if 90 percent of all suicides are by people with “some form of a diagnosable mental disorder” then why haven’t “advances in the treatment of mental illness had so little effect?” Actually, here’s what the NIMH lists as one risk factor:

– depression and other mental disorders, or a substance-abuse disorder (often in combination with other mental disorders). More than 90 percent of people who die by suicide have these risk factors

So Anderson doesn’t mention the risk of alcohol or substance abuse, or that these are often co-occurring with mental disorders. Other possible answers to Anderson’s question: Not all those with mental illness seek treatment. Or, even those in treatment suffer from impulsiveness and difficulties with planning. Some risk factors, such as having a family member that committed suicide, cannot be “treated” in the usual sense.

Anderson answer is to address that outcome of suicide has less to do with the “why” of suicide (such as mental illness), but the “how” of suicide. Is the act premeditated or impulsive? Many impulsive suicides, Anderson suggests, are preventable. Anderson argues that jumping off a bridge is seldom premeditated, often impulsive. (He cites interviews survivors of attempted suicide by jumping.) And he offers an interesting case study:

In Northwest Washington stands a pretty neoclassical-style bridge named for one of the city’s most famous native sons, Duke Ellington. Running perpendicular to the Ellington, a stone’s throw away, is another bridge, the Taft. Both span Rock Creek, and even though they have virtually identical drops into the gorge below — about 125 feet — it is the Ellington that has always been notorious as Washington’s “suicide bridge.” By the 1980s, the four people who, on average, leapt from its stone balustrades each year accounted for half of all jumping suicides in the nation’s capital. The adjacent Taft, by contrast, averaged less than two.

Opponents to setting up a fence on the Ellington bridge argued that the suicidal would simply travel the hundred odd yards to the Taft bridge.

Except the opponents were wrong. A study conducted five years after the Ellington barrier went up showed that while suicides at the Ellington were eliminated completely, the rate at the Taft barely changed, inching up from 1.7 to 2 deaths per year. What’s more, over the same five-year span, the total number of jumping suicides in Washington had decreased by 50 percent, or the precise percentage the Ellington once accounted for.

The difference in the two bridges?

So why the Ellington more than the Taft? In its own way, that little riddle rather buttresses the environmental-cue theory, for the one glaring difference between the two bridges — a difference readily apparent to most anyone who walked over them in their original state — was the height of their balustrades. The concrete railing on the Taft stands chest-high on an average man, while the pre-barrier Ellington came to just above the belt line. A jump from either was lethal, but one required a bit more effort and a bit more time, and both factors stand in the way of impulsive action.

Essentially the article argues that many suicides are preventable. Anderson goes on to examine some interesting history of the Golden Gate Bridge. Since 1937 an estimated 2000 people ended their lives jumping off it. The details are quite interesting.


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Clinical Psychologist practicing in the Los Feliz neighborhood of Los Angeles, California.

2 thoughts on “Suicide Is Dangerous”

  1. Make it HARD for people to kill themselves! Spend the money to put up railings or whatever is needed on bridges to deter impulsive jumpers. Do not let guns be bought or be in the home of a mentally ill person. Even if they convince you they are NOT suicidal…but they HAVE showed you bi-polar symptoms before. HIDE all the guns and the ammo. Even if they can go to WalMart and get a gun and ammo…it should be made HARDER for a mentally ill person to get a gun on demand. There should be a waiting period and even at 23 they should have to get a parent to sign for permission. It is just too damn easy in this country to kill yourself when you are depressed. Especially when you are bi-polar and usually the NEXT day…or maybe in a FEW days…you are feeling MUCH better AND you love yourself again and the people in your life. But…like my son, at age 23, he made the ULTIMATE MISTAKE and shot himself in the mouth when he was feeling BLUE and in mental and physical pain. He left us in SO MUCH pain, feeling NO JOY in our lives and feeling like our family was incomlete! We are assured that he went to Heaven and he has no pain and no more tears…but we, as his parents, feel like we have been going through hell…crying all the time and carrying around this pain that will NEVER go away EVER!!
    I love YOU Philip and I miss you MORE!!!
    Your MaMa


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