A Story (to Substantiate the Need) For National Suicide Prevention Month

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There’s something about growing up in a waterfront community and seeing a view like this one (taken by my photographer friend J. Graham) that still haunts me. 

I know if you look at it, you would say “yes, it’s a great picture of a bridge.” But for me, this is a picture that represents the beginning and the “why” behind my healthcare career and my interest in psychology along with some difficult and painful memories.

My friend, Michael, who used to help, coach and tease me all of the time when I was working at a local yacht club, ended his life at a young age by jumping from the center span of the Newport Bridge. In the next few days, as his death became more known to all of us in the community, there were discussions from people who knew him seeing him sitting in his car as they drove down a street along the waterfront: “He seemed to be writing something” one of my friends told me. He regretted that he didn’t stop to speak with him. Then there was another person who said the same thing a few hours later – about seeing him sitting in his car “writing something.”

No one stopped and he died.

I always wondered if there was something I could have said, something I could have done. And then, after wondering and thinking about him frequently for the next several years, I realized that he was gone and I will never know. I realized that, for me, it was more important to remember him for the lessons and the wisdom he taught me, because of the good friend that he was, and the relationship I had with him. That it was important to preserve his legacy, our friendship and the many memories I had of him: the time he explained to me why finishing carpentry was so important, or the time he chastised me for several weeks after arriving at the yacht club to find I had flown the massive burgee upside down when I raised it on the flagpole that morning. “The white stripe starts at the top left!” he yelled. I remembered the several hours he had assisted me voluntarily whenever there were storm warnings, and we needed to make sure everything around the club was boarded up or tied down. He was a thoughtful, talented man with an abundance of potential who died far too soon. 

At that time, people didn’t always know what happened once someone jumped from the bridge. Once their bodies were located (if they were discovered), they would sometimes be transported to one of the docks at a marina close to the bridge while they waited for the medical examiner to come.

I learned about this process during the summers when I was in school (from high school, all the way through graduate school), when I worked as a launch driver, shuttling passengers from their boats in the harbor to different docks around Newport. It was a great way to meet people, work outside on the water and have fun.

But there were a few times when I would be driving towards a dock – this one dock close to the bridge – and see one or two police officers standing over a deceased person on the dock, covered by a blanket. I would slow down and get within about 15 – 20 feet from the dock and ask them where I could go to drop off my passengers. – Because that dock wasn’t the place, and they didn’t need to be any closer the person lying on the dock in front of them.

So this is where you say “if they’re covered by a blanket, then you can’t see their face.” And yes, you would be correct. Except sometimes, you could see their face or their shoes – depending on how tall they were and how small the blanket was. If there was a blanket. If there were shoes.

It was always dark, always a slow, quieter (because voices carry across the water) conversation with the police officers and one that stopped every passenger in my boat from speaking to each other as they slowly realized what was going on.

I decided to go back to school for my bachelors in Psychology when I realized I had seen enough and wanted to do more to help people who felt the same way that my friend Michael, and my other friend Scott did.

September is National Suicide Prevention month (#suicidepreventionmonth), if someone ever tells you they are Depressed, suicidal or need help or emotional support, ask them if they are safe. Let them know that support is available for them (or you) 24 hours a day, 7 days a week from a team of highly qualified, compassionate professionals. Encourage them to reach out to them and ask for the professional assistance and support they need and deserve. If you have an Employee Assistance program, help them to contact them as well.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (their phone number is 1.800.273.8255).