To Be or Not to Be?

More people die of suicide in King County than from traffic accidents or murder, but no one likes to talk about it. A few words about the history, meaning, and practice of suicide, from third-century Christian death cults to the Aurora Bridge.

To Be or Not to Be?

samuel bosma

THE AURORA BRIDGE IS THE SECOND MOST POPULAR JUMP SITE IN THE U.S. More than 230 people have leaped from it—over the past decade, an average of one person every three months. This spring, the state will install a mile of suicide fencing on either side. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call the King County Crisis Clinic at 461-3222 or 866-4CRISIS.

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SUICIDE METHODS in King County 2008

Last summer, a University of Washington parking-lot attendant hanged himself from the side of a campus garage while setting himself on fire. The flames burned through the cord, dropping him into the alley below, where he died of two simultaneous causes—burning and falling.

The same day somewhere else in King County, a man who'd hanged himself in his bathroom nine years earlier finally succumbed to anoxic encephalopathy and died: a time- delayed suicide. Two days after that, a 65-year-old woman took an overdose of prescription pills and drowned herself in Lake Washington. Two days after that, a 66-year-old man overdosed on sedatives, antidepressants, and alcohol in his kitchen in Kent. One week and six King County suicides later (three shootings, two hangings, and one asphyxiation by plastic bag), another Kent sexagenarian killed himself by cutting his feet and legs with a knife. He died, according to the King County medical examiner's report, of "exsanguination," the simple act of diverting a few ounces of blood from the inside of his body to the outside—an act that most people are reluctant to discuss. (That same month, another King County man exsanguinated himself by cutting his kidney dialysis catheter with scissors. The dialysis machine pumped blood out of his body and onto the floor.)

"'Tis impious, says the old Roman superstition, to divert rivers from their course," David Hume wrote in a rare (and exasperated) defense of suicide in 1755. People think that God is terribly angry at those us of who kill ourselves, he argued, because people are egotists: "The life of a man is of no greater importance to the universe than that of an oyster."

"It would be no crime in me to divert the Nile or Danube from its course," he fumed. "Where then is the crime of turning a few ounces of blood from their natural channel? Do you imagine that I repine at Providence or curse my creation, because I go out of life, and put a period to a being, which, were it to continue, would render me miserable?"

We haven't come close to answering the question.

A total of 13,339 people died in King County in 2008. (The data for 2009 hasn't been tabulated yet.) Sixteen percent of them—2,121 people—became cases for the county Medical Examiner's Office: 85 were murdered, 163 died in traffic accidents, and 210 committed suicide. Of the suicides, 93 shot themselves. (In the same year, there were 45 gun-related murders: If you're going to die by gunfire in these parts, you'll most likely be pulling the trigger.) Forty-eight hanged themselves. Twenty-nine took drugs or poison. Thirteen died from jumping, eight from asphyxia, five from cutting or stabbing, four from carbon-monoxide poisoning, three from drowning, another three from self-immolation, and four from "other."

I asked Joe Frisino—who has been investigating deaths for the Medical Examiner's Office, by his own reckoning, "for longer'n you've been alive"—what counts as "other."

"I've seen people put tape over their mouths, seen people drown themselves in a barrel of water, and some people jump into machinery," he said. "Sometimes people really want to hurt themselves or hurt the person who they think is at fault. Sometimes you see suicide notes that say, 'Well, this'll show you.' Of course, nobody shows anybody anything, because they're dead."

During his years at the Medical Examiner's Office, Frisino has become something of a scholar of suicide. "Even if a case is reported as a suicide by the police department, we go in with an open mind," he said. "We see far more deceased folks than any police officer on the beat."

He has learned that people who live on houseboats near the Aurora Bridge can recognize the sound of a body splashing into Lake Union. He has learned that the sooner he interviews a bereaved family, the more accurate the information will be, because they haven't had time to consult a lawyer or an insurance agent. And he's learned how to tell whether a hanging was a suicide or an erotic accident. "Look at the joist or whatever they've hung themselves on," he said. "If there are many notches in the wood, you've got yourself an autoerotic asphyxiation. Also, those people tend to put a towel around the rope, because if you go to work with lots of lines across your neck"—Frisino drew a forefinger across his throat and grinned—"people might ask: 'You wearing your tie a little tight these days, buddy?'"

Hanging is the most popular method of self-slaughter in the world and the second most popular in the United States, after firearms. (It's also the most common suicide method among U.S. children: Last December, a 6-year-old girl in McMinnville, Oregon, became one of the youngest suicides in American history by tying a corduroy belt around her neck and hanging herself from the top railing of a crib.)

People figured out how to weave and plait about 10,000 years ago and probably started hanging themselves shortly after. The anthology African Homicide and Suicide, a collection of studies compiled in 1960 but still considered definitive for its subject matter, reports that 90 percent of the suicides in premodern Africa were by hanging from rafters or tree branches. Among the Basoga in Uganda, the rate is as high as 96 percent, even when knives and cliffs are readily available. It's also one of the easiest methods: It takes only seven or eight pounds of tension on a cord to block the carotid artery in your neck. Meaning you can hang yourself while kneeling. Many prison "hangings" are really just prison "leanings forward."

The world's most popular jump site is said to be Mount Mihara, a volcano on an island near Tokyo where a person can leap off the rim and directly into the lava. Though the numbers are difficult to verify, over 600 people reportedly killed themselves by jumping into its crater in 1936 alone. The most popular jump site in the United States is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, a suicide magnet for people all over the country. (Reports from the University of California show that many people travel across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, though the two structures are approximately the same height. There is no record of anyone doing it the other way around.) The second most popular jump site in the United States is the Aurora Bridge, between Fremont and Queen Anne.

More than 230 people have leaped from the Aurora Bridge—the first was a shoe salesman who jumped in 1932, before the bridge was even open—and roughly 15 percent survive. In the two or three seconds it takes to fall those 164 feet, a 160-pound person can reach speeds of 55 miles per hour. One person who survived a jump in 1980 and was later profiled by the Seattle Post-Intelligencer lost two inches in height from her injuries.

Some jump into Lake Union and others jump onto the adjacent parking lot of Adobe Systems. (A few years ago, after a 15-year-old girl jumped onto the parking lot, her friends painted a big heart to mark the spot where her body fell.) On average, one person jumps off the bridge every three months. But this spring, the Washington State Department of Transportation (WSDOT) will erect more than a mile of suicide fencing on either side of the bridge. The project comes after years of debate pitting concerns about construction noise and fence aesthetics against the danger of bodies plummeting from the sky and landing on houseboats, cars, or passersby.

On a sunny, windy day in April, I stood on the bridge with WSDOT engineer Aleta Borschowa and inspector Sam Al Mallah, all of us wearing hard hats and orange safety vests, talking about the logistics of the project: how the builders will x-ray the old bridge to make sure they're not drilling into critical rebar, how they'll rig a system so they only have to shut down one sidewalk at a time, how they'll establish phone boxes allowing people in wheelchairs (who can't take the stairs to cross from the closed sidewalk to the open one) to call for a quick ride to the other end of the bridge.

"You got to think of all these things," Al Mallah says. "We'll have mesh nets beneath the bridge, so if a worker drops a wrench or something, it won't hurt anybody below."

Jamie Holter, a spokesperson for WSDOT, stood on the bridge with us, also wearing a hard hat and orange safety vest. She said the project will cost $4.6 million, down from its original, prerecession budget of $8.1 million. I mentioned a 1995 study I'd just read about the economic cost of killing oneself: The direct cost of an attempted suicide—hospital fees, autopsy and investigation costs—is $5,310. The direct cost of a completed suicide is $2,098.

"Did the state do any kind of cost-benefit analysis to figure out when the barrier would start paying for itself?" I asked.

"Uh... no," Holter answered. "I don't think the state calculated the value of a human life."

Then she told me a story.

"When I was 22, I was working as a waitress in Santa Monica. I remember walking with two bowls of French onion soup and seeing a man fall past the window—and I just dropped the bowls of soup, right there. It shocked me. He'd jumped off the roof and killed himself. I ran to the window. You think that a jumper would be like the cartoons, all splattered and gory and bloody. But he was just lying there, normal. And then this great puddle of blood began to drain out of him—I threw up right there, on the floor. It's a traumatic thing to see someone die. I'll never forget it."

When we were done talking, Borschowa, Al Mallah, and Holter took my hard hat and orange vest and drove away, leaving me to walk up and down the bridge a few times. I leaned over the edge for a while, looking at the puckers of gray-green waves below, trying to imagine jumping. For just a flash, it didn't seem so bad—a fast, exhilarating fall with nothing on the other side. No having to hike back home. No having to worry about the people I love. No rent to pay, no clothes to wash, no having to get down to the work of writing this story. No nothing.

A 2005 article in Psychiatric News says some jumpers aren't necessarily depressed or chronic suicide attempters—sometimes people are simply overwhelmed by a sudden desire to leap—and that thwarted jumpers rarely go on to kill themselves in other ways. One researcher followed the lives of 515 people who were pulled from the Golden Gate Bridge: After an average of 26 years each, 94 percent were either still living or had died of natural causes. Another study, of the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., showed that its suicide fence caused no increase in suicides at the Taft Bridge, which has no fence and is only one block away.

It's difficult to say why some places become suicide magnets. Hundreds have committed suicide from the Aurora Bridge, but only three suicides have jumped from the Space Needle (all in the 1970s, before suicide barriers were installed). Over 360 people are said to have jumped from the Eiffel Tower—including one possibly apocryphal young woman who landed on the roof of a car, survived, and later married the car's owner—though the rates declined after the installation of a suicide fence. The Empire State Building continues to draw people despite its guards and suicide barriers: Cameron Dabaghi, the Yale student who leaped from the Empire State Building two months ago, ignored the pleas of other people on the observation deck, took a running start to clear a safety barrier, and somehow got over a 10-foot-high spiked fence—police still aren't sure how.

In 1996, a young police officer named Kevin Grossman was called out to the Ravenna Bridge in the University District where a man was threatening to jump. Grossman had joined the Seattle Police Department only months before. "I just didn't know what to say to this guy," he recollected the other day. "He wouldn't talk, he wouldn't respond, I didn't have any experience." The man jumped and died. Officer Grossman went through the man's wallet and found an ID: His given address was the Western State mental institution.

"I thought, 'Wow,'" he said. "You can't help but blame yourself a little bit—there's got to be something else we can do to get officers out there who can even recognize the symptoms and try to help these people." He joined the Crisis Intervention Team, a group of several hundred officers who elect for special crisis training, in 1998. Seven years later, he attended the FBI negotiator school and joined the hostage-negotiation team. "The title is so sexy," he explained, "but almost all of what we do is suicide intervention"—talking to people who are, in a sense, holding themselves hostage.

Many of the strategies might seem like common sense, he says, but "conversation is a lost art." Whether he's talking to people threatening to kill hostages or threatening to kill themselves, Grossman uses active listening, empathy, and patience ("Traffic may be diverted or you inconvenience people, and that sucks, but you may end up not having to shoot someone"), and tries to help them identify something worth living for. Grossman calls that "the hook."

"People in crisis focus on the crisis," he said. "It's tunnel vision, and you try to remind them of a relationship, a kid they adore, friends, something else that's important. I had one case where a guy, a veteran going through hard times, was threatening to jump from a parking garage. I don't know how, but we somehow got on the topic of ice cream. I got him to promise me that if he got off the parking garage and got on a gurney, I'd get him a pint of Ben & Jerry's ice cream. And I'll be damned if he didn't come down and get on the gurney. And I got him a pint of ice cream."

In 2007, Detective Grossman was awarded the Seattle Police Department's Detective of the Year award.

The King County Crisis Clinic is the second oldest 24-hour crisis line in the United States. It was founded in 1964 by two married psychiatrists whose 12-year-old daughter—Jill Marie Patten—was stabbed 14 times by a letter carrier a few blocks from her home. (She survived.) As the couple looked into her attacker's past, they realized he was someone who had needed help and couldn't get it. The couple assembled a team of friends and colleagues to start a crisis hotline. Since the first call, the phones have never been off.

"We get a fair number of suicide calls," said Crisis Services director Michael Reading. In 2009, the clinic received 4,289 calls "with suicidal content" (507 of them from people under 18) and 52,158 other calls for other "emotional support." That's 20 suicidal calls for every completed suicide in King County.

The clinic has over 140 volunteers, some of whom have been there for years. The true-crime writer Ann Rule worked at the Crisis Clinic in the 1970s alongside Ted Bundy—her first book, The Stranger Beside Me, is about coming to the realization that her friend and former colleague was a serial killer.

"It's a very intense subject and a very intense job," said Gavin Turner, a soft-voiced Australian man who started at the clinic 15 months ago. "You get the whole spectrum of human experience in that phone room." If a caller begins giving verbal cues about suicide, Turner explained, the best thing to do is ask them directly whether they're thinking about killing themselves—and not to use euphemisms like "Are you thinking of taking your life?"

"Some new volunteers might question this," he said. "They wonder if they're planting the idea in someone's mind. But if you ask a direct question, you get a direct answer. And there may be some relief from the caller, like 'Finally someone is asking me.' In all the time I've been working at the clinic, I've never asked that question and had the person say no." When a caller says yes, the volunteer on the line raises his or her hand, and a mental-health professional (there are always one or two on duty) comes over to sit with the volunteer for emotional support.

The next step is to ascertain the caller's immediate safety, to determine whether they have a gun or lethal medications in the house and whether they have an immediate plan to hurt themselves. "We're not counseling on the phone," Turner said. "We're staying in the moment, dealing with what's happening now. For most people, it's a momentary impulse—sometimes they just need someone to do some active listening, to have a genuine and honest conversation, or to just to sit with them. You have to be okay with sitting in silence."

Like Detective Grossman, the volunteer tries to help the caller identify something worth living for, something short-term to keep them going through the evening. "It could be anything," Turner said. "From a relationship and the experience of being loved to the next episode of The Golden Girls. We try to remind them of the basics of self-care—did you eat today? If it's 2:00 a.m., we might suggest they have a cup of tea, turn off the light, and lie down and breathe. We ask people to make a verbal contract to stay safe this evening and ask what they're going to do at the end of the call. What's your short-term plan to get you through the next few minutes? The next few hours? And so often, at the end of a call, people say, 'Thank you so much for listening.'"

Joe Frisino, of the county Medical Examiner's Office, said that sometime in the 1980s, his office partnered with the Crisis Clinic to get the names of the 40 highest-risk people who had called the clinic but hadn't been heard from in a while. (That study would be impossible today because of privacy laws—currently, all calls to the Crisis Clinic are anonymous.) "The examiners went out to look for them," Frisino says. "And you know what? We only found one who had taken his life. We were all surprised. We thought there'd be more."

Dear Mom:

Let me tell you a few things you already know: You're ill with a disease that can't be cured and, barring a miracle, will probably end your life. Like every person who has ever had a terminal disease—like all of us who will eventually be diagnosed with terminal diseases—you will probably face a difficult moment when you think about whether to end your own life or let the disease do the ending for you.

Since you follow the news, you also know that last year, Washington State voters approved an assisted-suicide law that allows you to make that choice legally—to take some short-acting barbiturates that will help you relax while slowing your heart and your breathing and usher you, calmly, to death. Last year, 63 people in Washington State filled prescriptions for those barbiturates and 36 chose to take them.

You're also a Christian, born and raised with old-time religion and the idea that if you choose to kill yourself, God will be really unhappy with you.

And you are the person who introduced me to Hamlet, dragging me along to see it so many times as a kid that I remember traipsing around the house asking, "To be or not to be?" long before I understood that is the question. As Hamlet puts it in the first of the play's (several) suicidal speeches:

O, that this too too solid flesh would melt,
Thaw and resolve itself into a dew!
Or that the Everlasting had not fix'd
His canon 'gainst self-slaughter! O God, God,
How weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable,
Seem to me all the uses of this world!
Fie on't, ah fie! 'Tis an unweeded garden
That grows to seed...

That line about the Everlasting fixing his canon against self-slaughter seemed absurd when I first figured out what it meant. I'd never thought of suicide as a sin. It seemed more like eating the family goldfish or setting the sofa on fire—definitely a bad idea, but not something you'd wind up in hell for.

Especially since the Everlasting that Hamlet is referring to is God, who sent "His only begotten son" to earth to die on purpose and free us all from sin. Wasn't the crucifix we stared at every Sunday the image of a God who committed altruistic suicide? Wasn't that what all the fuss was about?

So, Mom, let me tell you a few things you might not already know: The Christian prohibition against suicide, as far as I can tell, isn't in the Bible. It began centuries later with a polemic St. Augustine wrote against an early Christian sect that was overly fond of martyrdom. Because Augustine didn't have much biblical evidence to muster against their suicidal tendencies, he resorted to pre-Christian philosophers (mostly Aristotle) to make his case for him. The Christian arguments against suicide are largely borrowed from pagans. And St. Thomas More—not just a theologian but a saint—makes an argument for rational, humane suicide for the terminally ill in Utopia. Granted, Utopia is fiction, not theology. But he didn't seem like he was kidding.

Despite what you might've heard about lemmings and scorpions, people are the only animals that commit suicide. The old Romans used to think that scorpions stung themselves to death when tortured with fire (and a few grainy, sadistic YouTube videos have taken them up on the challenge, setting scorpions in skillets with flammable liquids and throwing in matches). But in 1998, three French biologists found that scorpions are highly resistant to their own venom. They flail wildly when burned alive—who wouldn't?—which might look like they're trying to kill themselves, but they're not.

And lemmings jumping off cliffs? That was a stunt staged by a Disney documentary crew in 1958 that got out of hand. While filming the documentary White Wilderness in Alberta, Canada, the Disney crew wanted footage to illustrate the old story of lemmings jumping off cliffs into the Arctic Ocean—even though Alberta is landlocked and roughly one thousand miles from the Arctic Ocean. So the film crew bought some lemmings from indigenous folks, shoved them off a lakeside cliff, and filmed the result.

Ancient Greek and Roman suicides were anomalous for their violence—40 percent death by weapons, 18 percent by hanging, and 16 percent by jumping. But those suicide rates aren't verifiable, and the myth of the noble suicide as a heroic act of militant will was part of ancient cultural mythology. Cato the Younger, for example, having decided to kill himself (because he didn't want to live in a world ruled by Julius Caesar), allegedly took a bath, had supper with his friends, went to bed, read Plato's Phaedo a few times, then stabbed himself in the guts. From Plutarch's Lives:

His thrust, however, was somewhat feeble, owing to the inflammation in his hand, and so he did not at once dispatch himself, but in his death struggle fell from the couch and made a loud noise by overturning a geometrical abacus that stood near. His servants heard the noise and cried out, and his son at once ran in, together with his friends. They saw that he was smeared with blood, and that most of his bowels were protruding... the physician went to him and tried to replace his bowels, which remained uninjured, and to sew up the wound. Accordingly, when Cato recovered and became aware of this, he pushed the physician away, tore his bowels with his hands, rent the wound still more, and so died.

That is a classic noble suicide in the Western tradition—intentional, spectacular, principled. Samson was another. Robbed of his magical strength and enslaved by the Philistines, he asked God to grant him one last boost of power to shake an entire temple to the ground, taking 3,000 Philistines with him in a move that would've impressed a 9/11 hijacker. (One man's evil Philistine is another man's relative who happens to be in the wrong building at the wrong time.) In both the Old Testament (Judges 13:24) and the New Testament (Hebrews 11:32), God counts Samson among the blessed.

The Christian prohibition against suicide didn't really get going until St. Augustine and the ideological war he waged against heretical schisms, including the Donatists, a pack of fundamentalists who refused to recognize the spiritual authority of priests who'd renounced their faith during Roman persecutions. While the rest of the early Church was more forgiving to those fair-weather Christians, the Donatists called them traditors, "people who handed over" sacred scriptures to the Romans to be burned. (The word "traitor" comes from this root.)

There were too many fights, murders, and excommunications to describe here, but the Donatists had the idea that running into the arms of martyrdom was a good way to get to heaven. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, "they were especially fond of flinging themselves from precipices" and sometimes "sought death at the hands of others, either by paying men to kill them, by threatening to kill a passerby if he would not kill them, or by their violence inducing magistrates to have them executed." St. Augustine tore into the Donatists, arguing that suicide was an unpardonable sin, and leaned on Aristotle to make his point.

In the mid 1200s, St. Thomas Aquinas argued against suicide in his Summa Theologica, leaning heavily on Augustine, more Aristotle ("The most fearsome evil of this life is death"), and the Old Testament book of Deuteronomy (which explicitly prohibits shaving but only obliquely criticizes suicide—Aquinas cites passages about how killing is God's prerogative: "I will kill and I will make live"). Aquinas mentions the Samson problem, but never resolves it.

Later thinkers dabbled in suicide—one medieval Spanish theologian argued that if you were in a shipwreck and drowned because you let someone else take an unoccupied floating board, you were just being generous, but if you gave up a board you'd already grabbed, you had committed a mortal sin—but nobody seriously questioned whether the Everlasting really had fixed his canon against self-slaughter until 1608, when priest and poet John Donne ("Death, be not proud...") wrote his Biathanatos.

In Biathanatos, Donne only lightly touches on the central problem for Christians—whether Jesus Christ was a noble suicide. Instead, Donne uses Samson as a less controversial stand-in for Christ. In his exegesis of Biathanatos, Jorge Luis Borges distills Donne's implied argument, which may have been too dangerous for anyone to explicitly make in Donne's day:

For the Christian, the life and death of Christ are the central event in the history of the world; the centuries before prepared for it, those after reflect it. Before Adam was formed from the dust of the earth, before the firmament separated the waters from the waters, the Father knew that the Son was to die on the cross and, as the theater of this future death, created the heavens and the earth. Christ died a voluntary death, Donne suggests, and this means that the elements and the terrestrial orb and the generations of mankind and Egypt and Rome and Babylon and Judah were extracted from nothingness in order to destroy him. Perhaps iron was created for the nails, and thorns for the mock crown, and blood and water for the wound. This baroque idea glimmers behind Biathanatos. The idea of a god who creates the universe in order to create his own gallows.

Biathanatos was published after Donne's death and was pretty much forgotten by everyone, save a few scholars.

I thought about you as I did this research, Mom, because if the moment comes when you have to choose between barbiturates and disease—one sabotaging your organs quickly and painlessly, the other sabotaging your organs more slowly and painfully—you shouldn't have to worry about whether you're committing a sin. Hamlet was wrong. The Everlasting did not fix his canon against self-slaughter: Augustine did, for venial reasons that have little to do with God and nothing to do with you—he was just trying to get the attention of some crazy people in North Africa.

Many of the people I talked to in the course of working on this story encouraged me not to write it. For most people, the subject is so taboo it's hard to deal with—even among people who deal with suicide for a living.

Two Jesuit scholars, one from Seattle University, flatly refused to discuss the theology of suicide with me. Jamie Holter at WSDOT had reservations about providing access to the Aurora Bridge engineers. Sue Eastgard, a youth-suicide expert, urged me to be circumspect about describing details of suicide, saying: "We can argue about freedom of speech, but there is a danger in describing horrible images that inspire some of our more disturbed kids—suicide contagion is real."

Wylie Tene, of the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention, also had some concerns about this story, particularly about how it would be illustrated. In 2007, Tene wrote a letter to The Stranger admonishing us for a joking mention of suicide in our annual regrets issue—"The Stranger has little concern that their irresponsibility may lead to copycat suicide," he wrote—so I thought I'd call Tene to ask his opinion. "An illustration of the bridge probably isn't the safest thing," he said, when I described the drawing of a woman on the Aurora Bridge. "Could the image just be of someone looking depressed, maybe crouching in a corner crying? Or maybe of the bridge with the suicide barriers in place, to give people the impression that the barriers are already up? The best image would probably be someone in a psychiatrist's office getting some help."

And Robb Miller of Compassion & Choices of Washington, who worked on the death-with-dignity campaign, asked me to withhold the names of the prescription barbiturates people take to end their lives. He also objected when I used the phrase "assisted suicide," saying that term was "loaded" and that his campaign "had put a lot of resources into" divorcing itself from the word suicide. His people prefer the term "aid in dying."

"Hell, that's just mincing words," my mom said when I told her about that conversation. "If you're going to say something, just say it." But even she urged me to be "very, very careful" while writing about Christianity and suicide. "How are you going to feel if somebody kills himself because of your article?"

There's something to that. In 1774, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe published The Sorrows of Young Werther, a romantic novel about a sensitive, lovelorn young man who shoots himself. Goethe later denounced the novel and the romantic movement in general, calling it "everything that is sick." But the damage was done: People loved it. Napoleon carried a copy of Young Werther during his invasion of Egypt. Mary Shelley wrote a scene in Frankenstein where the monster weeps as he reads it. And Wertherfieber ("Werther fever") became an 18th-century obsession, with young men imitating his clothing, his sighing romantic persona, and, allegedly, his death. As it gathered a reputation for inspiring young suicides, Young Werther was banned in Leipzig, Copenhagen, and the whole of Italy.

Academics have argued about whether popular stories—especially newspaper stories about suicides—have a "Werther effect." In the 1980s, studies in Vienna showed that when newspaper stories about people jumping in front of subway trains were made less dramatic, subway suicide attempts dropped by more than 80 percent. The overall suicide rate in Vienna dropped as well. But studies in the U.S. and elsewhere have been contradictory. "Although many of the findings suggest that media coverage on suicides may cause imitative suicidal behavior," write the authors of the Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology, "the evidence still remains inconclusive."

In 1994, when newspapers and magazines exploded with stories about Kurt Cobain's suicide, specialists braced for the worst. Eastgard, the youth-suicide expert, was at a suicide-prevention conference on the East Coast when the news broke. "Everybody there was afraid of what was going to happen," she said. "I gave interviews for four days straight after the Cobain suicide. I lost my voice talking to the media."

Eastgard and a group of suicide-prevention specialists assembled a study to examine the King County suicide rate for a "Cobain effect." But there was none—in fact, 1994 had slightly lower suicide rates than the years before and after. (An Australian study looking at youth suicide after Cobain showed the same results.) Calls to the King County Crisis Clinic spiked, however—the coverage inspired more people to seek help. Eastgard gives much of the credit to Courtney Love.

"Whatever you think of Courtney, she did an enormous service to the community by speaking out," Eastgard said. "She was pissed at him, she swore at him, she said, 'This is not right.' It's the glamorizing, the glorifying that's problematic."

The central problem of studying suicide, say the authors of the Comprehensive Textbook of Suicidology, is the difficulty of knowing what the dead were thinking. Some people kill themselves because they're desperate or deranged. Some people kill themselves calmly and rationally, in the spirit of Seneca the Younger: "The wise man will live as long as he ought, not as long as he can." People all over the world kill themselves for all kinds of reasons—children, old people, the dirt poor, even the filthy rich.

On January 5, 2009, a German multibillionaire named Adolf Merckle who made a fortune on cement and pharmaceutical firms reclined on some train tracks near his home and was run over. Time magazine guessed that Merckle committed suicide because he "lost several hundred million euros when he got caught on the losing end of a short sale of Volkswagen shares." But who knows?

In the first chapter of The Virgin Suicides, by Jeffrey Eugenides, a young girl named Cecilia wakes up in an emergency room after slashing her wrists in a bathtub.

Dr. Armonson stitched up her wrist wounds. Within five minutes of the transfusion he declared her out of danger. Chucking her under her chin, he said, "What are you doing here, honey? You're not even old enough to know how bad life gets."
And it was then Cecilia gave orally what was to be her only form of suicide note, and a useless one at that, because she was going to live: "Obviously, doctor, you've never been a thirteen-year-old girl."

Perhaps the most committed philosopher of suicide was a 19th-century German who called himself Philipp Mainländer. He argued in his Philosophy of Redemption that everything extant yearns for nonexistence and that human beings are the shards of a God who, to overcome the monotonous agony of immortality, created a finite universe so He, too, could pass into oblivion. "Our world," Mainländer wrote, "is the means and the only means of achieving nonexistence."

On April 1, 1875, Mainländer hanged himself in his home. He used a stack of copies of Philosophy of Redemption, which had arrived the previous day, as a pedestal. He was 34 years old. recommended

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, call 461-3222 or 866-4CRISIS.


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The "the city hasn't calculated the cost of a human life" thing doesn't ring true to me. A few people jump of the I-5 overpass every year--no-one's proposing a suicide fence there because it would be way expensive and it'd only (maybe) save a few lives each year. All that "If it only saves ONE LIFE, it'll be worth it...." talk seems to dry up when there are no whiny houseboat owners involved.

If the concern was really in stopping people from dying on Aurora, they'd put up a ten foot fence on the divider from the tunnel up to just past Greenlake to keep dipshits from running across at night and, several times a year, getting killed in traffic. But again--no whiny houseboat owners involved.
Posted by tiktok on May 5, 2010 at 11:16 AM · Report this
Very interesting and informative article, thanks for the read!
Posted by jns on May 5, 2010 at 11:26 AM · Report this
Posted by shani on May 5, 2010 at 11:45 AM · Report this
Megan Seling 4
@3 Oops. Fixed. Thanks!
Posted by Megan Seling on May 5, 2010 at 12:41 PM · Report this
biffster 5
hey brendan,

you should check out "The Bridge"

it's about ppl jumping off the San Fran Bridge. film crew filmed for a year to catch people in the act then they went and found their family members/friends and interviewed them to get a complete picture of what went wrong in their lives. pretty depressing flick.
Posted by biffster on May 5, 2010 at 12:50 PM · Report this
Dread Pirate Mateo 6
Great article. I wish more writing in the Stranger had the depth of this.
Posted by Dread Pirate Mateo on May 5, 2010 at 12:56 PM · Report this
Last night I saw an episode of the Family Guy in which (SPOILER) Brian explains as some length to Stewie why he keeps a bottle of Glenfiddich and a loaded revolver in his safety deposit box.

On Family Guy, fer crissakes. It's everywhere.
Posted by gloomy gus on May 5, 2010 at 1:31 PM · Report this

you can talk about whiny coworkers all you want, but there have been a large number of employees at Fremont businesses that have been scarred by the selfish jumpers. This may not fit your idea of cost-efficiency but it is worth it to everyone I've spoken with in Fremont, myself included. Also, this is more about depression than it is about stupidity- people running across a six lane highway at night are not likely able to be helped.
Posted by jenc01 on May 5, 2010 at 1:33 PM · Report this
@8 As I suspected--it's not about the suicidally depressed, "selfish" jumpers, it's about the people who are shocked to find that living/working next to the 2nd most popular suicide bridge in America means you have a chance of seeing jumpers. OMFG!

I mean, Christ, who could have seen that coming? It's not like the suicides are a big secret or something. Oh WAIT--they are. The press has a gentleman's agreement to not mention them less a wave of contagion overwhelm Fremont.

And I say this as someone who has worked next to the bridge, at the Adobe building and next door for almost ten years, in addition to walking/biking underneath it every work day, and who has never seen a jumper or jumper residue. But, I accept that it is a possibility, and if that really bothered me, I'd move/find another job.
Posted by tiktok on May 5, 2010 at 2:04 PM · Report this
I knew a guy who jumped off the Aurora bridge about 15 years ago and survived. Now he's a quadriplegic 'tard and will be for the rest of his life.
Posted by a.out on May 5, 2010 at 4:42 PM · Report this
Vampireseal 11
I had a coworker whose husband worked for CSX rail lines. He told her that at the start of his job he was told by his employer that someday he would see someone jump on the tracks. Almost everyone that worked on the trains sees at least one suicide. My friend's husband eventually did see someone deliberately stand on the tracks. He told her that he shut his eyes just as soon as they were to make contact (after repeatedly warning her to get off the tracks).

Suicide is an inevitably of human life, but I do wish would-be suicidals would think of bystanders and employees who have to see them die.
Posted by Vampireseal on May 5, 2010 at 4:52 PM · Report this
keep the streets empty for me.
Posted by nonoy on May 5, 2010 at 5:18 PM · Report this
keep the streets empty for me.
Posted by nonoy on May 5, 2010 at 5:47 PM · Report this
You say there ain't no use in livin'
It's all a waste of time
'n you wanna throw your life away, well
People that's just fine
Go ahead on 'n get it over with then
Find you a bridge 'n take a jump
Just make sure you do it right the first time
'cause nothin's worse than a suicide chump

You say there ain't no light a-shinin'
Through the bushes up ahead
'n we're all gonna be so sorry
When we find out you are dead
Go head on and get it over with then
Find you a bridge 'n take a jump
Just make sure you do it right the first
'cause nothin's worse than a suicide chump

Now maybe you're scared of jumpin'
'n poison makes you sick
'n you want a little attention
'n you need it pretty quick
Don't wanna mess your face up
Or we won't know if it's you
Aw there's just so much to worry about
Now what you gonna do?

Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then
Go head on and get it over with then

We miss you Frank. : /

(PS to anyone who might take umbrage - I quote this as a person who once hung off a 16 story balcony rail by three fingers and the toe of one shoe. So fuck you.)

Posted by Leave my nose alone, please on May 5, 2010 at 6:36 PM · Report this
Slam1263 15
Wow, more people die world wide from suicide than war. Some people just want to die. If we are to be a truely free people, should we let them?
Posted by Slam1263 on May 5, 2010 at 6:43 PM · Report this
Good article.

But I'm wondering about the old testament prohibition on shaving. I find a prohibition on shaving one's head in mourning for the dead, but other than that the only mention of shaving in Deuteronomy seems to be instructions for how to cleanse a POW woman you'd like to force to marry you: http://tinyurl.com/2ex8ted

Also, wow, Deuteronomy is effed up.
Posted by lilzilla on May 5, 2010 at 7:47 PM · Report this
Thanks, Brendan. I agree that I wish the Stranger had more writing of this caliber. It made me think of those I've lost and those I know who suffer so.
Posted by k.v. on May 5, 2010 at 8:56 PM · Report this
to Slam1263, no we should not let people die. Perhaps some people truly want to die- but likely because they have serious depression that disables them from precieving the world around them they way they would if they didn't have depression.

I lost my brother to suicide almost a year ago, so of course I'm sensitive to the issue but I've also learned a lot about mood disorders and suicide. Don't give up on people who need help! Depression is a disease. There is NO reason for stigma.
Posted by mnikiema on May 5, 2010 at 9:41 PM · Report this
Amazing article Brendan. There's so much depth and intensity in this subject and it seems like you managed to touch on all of it within the confines of one newspaper piece, thank you!

Posted by dvanilla1 on May 5, 2010 at 10:39 PM · Report this
JudahMcAlister 20
My eyes are watering making every other word hard to read. Your article was truly touching. I have a fresh look on treating others and myself. This must have been a tough story for you, dealing with your own sentimental thoughts and having to limit your self to words and great quotes. Suicide isn't only for select members, it involves everyone dead and alive. Think of the peoples lives you may have saved with your heartfelt article. We try to pin something(s) on someone(s) and forget about embracing love, love and my favorite, love. Some people like me get down on themselves and really just need a hug or someone to talk to or just a notice. Marilyn Manson who was "blamed" for Columbine shooting was asked a hypothetical question, what he would do if someone said "Marilyn, I'm going to kill my self because of your music". In response Manson said "I would not say anything I would listen to them, because that's what no one is doing". We tend to boast ourselves and belittle others, simply by not noticing them. Take action (that sounds like cheese), we need to be more understanding and accepting of others. I don't want to tell people what to do, but to simply open up and be [thinking of a powerful word] awesome.
Posted by JudahMcAlister http://myspace.com/someartgallery on May 5, 2010 at 11:43 PM · Report this
OutInBumF 21
Great article!
As a multiple-attempter myself (ask about how helpful fundie-christian anti-gay shit is), I will never agree that 'it's SO SELFISH'. It is the only solution to those who seriously attempt/succeed, and not selfish in their mind at all. They are actually helping those they love. Yes, screwed up, but rarely motivated by an 'I'll get even with YOU' mindset.
The 5 Million is a waste of $'s, and the whiny houseboat/Fremont folks should suck it up or move. People die every day folks- suicide is just another way to go.
Posted by OutInBumF on May 6, 2010 at 12:03 AM · Report this
He has learned that the sooner he interviews a bereaved family, the more accurate the information will be, because they haven't had time to consult a lawyer or an insurance agent.

Um, yeah. Frisino forgot to mention why that is... because life insurance won't pay shit for suicides, and the bereaved get stuck with the bill no matter how much was paid in premiums beforehand.

But hey- at least Frisino got a great story and the insurance company got a jackpot, right...?
Posted by UNPAID COMMENTER on May 6, 2010 at 12:38 AM · Report this
Posted by gillettebret on May 6, 2010 at 1:12 AM · Report this
The first graph (age vs number of suicides) wasn't a very good one. The size of the age brackets is not consistent and the number of people in each bracket can vary substantially. As a result, the shape of the graph tells us the likely age of the corpse rather than the likeliness of suicide for a living person. In other words, the graphs do not illustrate which age groups could be considered most at risk.
Posted by hotdogs on May 6, 2010 at 3:44 AM · Report this
I wish that I could remember specifically where this story was, but I can't. However, it was the story of a man who jumped off a bridge in an attempted suicide. He survived. Later he wrote that the second his body left the bridge... he regretted his decision. The Coast Guard who plucked him from the water said that EVERY person he rescues from a suicide attempt has admitted they regretted their decision. I thought that was interesting.
Posted by pik on May 6, 2010 at 7:59 AM · Report this
This article didn't make me any more or less suicidal than I am already. I found it interesting and informative but so emotionally distant and matter of fact.
Posted by lg on May 6, 2010 at 8:43 AM · Report this
Packeteer 27

What is interesting about this article is it shows that women are less likely to commit suicide after a divorce than the average woman. If being gay was a choice a lot of scorned women would have gone that way a long time ago.
Posted by Packeteer on May 6, 2010 at 9:22 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 28
I don't have time to finish reading this article now, but Will in Seattle? I told you so.

A 2005 article in Psychiatric News says some jumpers aren't necessarily depressed or chronic suicide attempters—sometimes people are simply overwhelmed by a sudden desire to leap—and that thwarted jumpers .... Another study, of the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., showed that its suicide fence caused no increase in suicides at the Taft Bridge, which has no fence and is only one block away.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 6, 2010 at 9:27 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 29
@ 26, that's called objective journalism. If you want some hippie-dippy la la shit, talk to a new age counselor.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 6, 2010 at 9:28 AM · Report this
wonderful article.
Posted by jumpmuncher on May 6, 2010 at 9:34 AM · Report this
rodolfo 31
Great work, Kiley!

@21: "As a multiple-attempter myself (ask about how helpful fundie-christian anti-gay shit is)..."

I felt a little less alone in the world after reading that. Seriously.
Posted by rodolfo on May 6, 2010 at 9:58 AM · Report this
People who are dealing with suicide in anyway, need our sympathy. I have noticed a growing trend and that is that in order for people not to 'feel' or allow this tragedy to hurt them in anyway, they become opposed, or scornful and bitter to its effects.

In order to help, it is important to lay ridicule and objections aside. Everyone has valid points and perhaps is sick of hearing about suicide, I'm sick of cancer but that doesn't mean I am hardened.

We fear what we don't know, and its important for individuals to understand that suicide is a reaction to something painful. The one commonality between all suicides, believer's and non is a lack of hope.

Suicide cannot be eradicated with the healthy population taking a blind eye and becoming emotionally detatched. This only reinstates the personal view in a suicidal that no one understands and no one cares.

Posted by Shannon Gilmour on May 6, 2010 at 9:58 AM · Report this
Rotten666 33
Good work. Very thoughtful and informative.
Posted by Rotten666 on May 6, 2010 at 10:02 AM · Report this
I've been reading the Stranger since the first issue and this is the finest piece of journalism the paper has ever published.
Posted by bryanrust on May 6, 2010 at 10:25 AM · Report this
Great read, though I doubt the aurora bridge "suicide fence" will actually deter people from jumping. 5 Million dollars to add an extra 5 feet to the jump...
Posted by fishyfish on May 6, 2010 at 10:38 AM · Report this
Probably the best article I've read in The Stranger in at least 10 years. Maybe ever. Awesome job, Brendan. I hope your writing talents can get you out of that 3rd-rate job in a 2nd-rate city sometime soon.
Posted by Rip City Hustle on May 6, 2010 at 10:49 AM · Report this
Matt from Denver 37
@ 35, you're a stupid tool. Please never post a comment here again. See my comment at 28, and try reading for comprehension next time.
Posted by Matt from Denver on May 6, 2010 at 11:01 AM · Report this
Beautiful article. :)
Posted by meiastar on May 6, 2010 at 11:08 AM · Report this
Thanks for this thoughtful and objective article. I honestly would like to know from those who've tried and failed - how is subjecting innocent bystanders to the possibility of seeing your battered body splattered across a parking lot NOT selfish?
Posted by LMC47 on May 6, 2010 at 11:20 AM · Report this
It may be wrong of me but I really love the illustration for this article.
Posted by Senor Guy on May 6, 2010 at 11:25 AM · Report this
Thank you for this article, and particularly for your description of the crisis hotline. As a past volunteer at a similar hotline, this depiction of volunteers' role at such centers rings very true. With such a stigma surrounding even having a conversation about suicide, I am glad to see such a thoughtful, informed article on the subject. Again, thank you for writing it.
Posted by Elizabeth in Louisiana on May 6, 2010 at 11:33 AM · Report this
Just a couple of things I'd like to add or emphasize; substance abuse and dependence are huge contributors to suicide and the majority of people who survive a serious suicide attempt say they really don't want to die -- they just want help.
Posted by concerned therapist on May 6, 2010 at 11:56 AM · Report this
public suicide attempts are the act of uber attention whores. multi attempts even more so, look at me,pay attention to me , poor me whaaaa!i have had a lot of people tell me "i wanna die ,i'm gonna kill myself!" and like a sucker i gave them the attention they wanted , listened to their bullshit. ultimately i wasted my time. now i have a new tactic, i offer to kill them so the don't go to hell for killing them selves . nothings more fun than a free murder i say. comon lets do it right now! you know what happens? they suddenly don't wanna die any more! if they spent half as much time working on themselves and their personalitys they might have freinds and a life outside this poor little me attitude. real suicidal people don't waste your time talking about it they just up and do it one day. like i said before just shut up and do it all ready. get off the grid and free up some space for someone that gives a shit about their life,and family.
Posted by gillettebret on May 6, 2010 at 11:59 AM · Report this
I enjoyed reading your article, Brendan. I've already received several comments about being the "soft-spoken" Australian...a rare combination, it has been pointed out to me, so thank you for the compliment!

While I could comfortably overlook you subscribing the Golden Girls comment to me and not Michael (we had a laugh about this when reading your article yesterday) I need to correct you, though, for something you wrote in your article. In reference to the thought process someone goes through when contemplating suicide, you quoted me as saying "For most people, it's a momentary impulse...". I did not say this and, moreover, my experience working at the Crisis Clinic suggests otherwise.

I am aware some people subscribe to the theory that suicidal behavior is a momentary impulse and perhaps you came across this opinion in the course of your researching this article. I do not subscribe to this theory, however, and so I was very surprised to see you quoting me as though I had said something that supported that opinion.

Despite this, your article had some good information in it and it will hopefully result in more people being aware of the important work the Crisis Clinic does in our community.

Posted by Gavin Turner on May 6, 2010 at 1:22 PM · Report this
Brendan Kiley has touched on a surprising number of issues, including a very personal one, within the limited space of his article, and I applaud him. This may be the best short treatment I've ever read. Having done a fair amount of research myself, I know there are questions and disagreements and differences over time and place on practically everything where suicide is concerned. People who want to know more will find a daunting number of books and articles on the subject; among those I've found helpful are A. Alvarez's book "The Savage God" (a cultural and literary study that also has a personal perspective on Sylvia Plath's suicide), Georges Minois' book "History of Suicide" (which covers centuries of Western attitudes), and Kay Jamison's book "Night Falls Fast."

More importantly, anyone who's considering suicide should, as this article says more than once, call a crisis help line. I'm not prepared to say, in principle, that suicide is either wrong or right, but I'm sure that no one has to feel alone in wrestling with the question.
Posted by John Branch on May 6, 2010 at 2:19 PM · Report this
For the price of that ear-sore fence, they could employ therapists round the clock at either end of the bridge for 15 years and actually help people.
Posted by LauraRose on May 6, 2010 at 2:35 PM · Report this
@46 Because I'm bored, I decided to crunch the numbers and see if you're full of shit.

So, let's assume we're hiring 2 therapists (one for each end of the bridge) at a rate of $50 an hour. (This figure is rather low, and doesn't take into account cost of living increases, but whatever.)

So we're employing two therapists for $50 per hour, everyday, for 15 years. Thus,

2 (people) x 50 (dollars) x 24 (hours) x 365 (days) x 15 (years) = $13,140,000

That's over three times the fence's estimated cost of $4,600,000.

In conclusion: You sir, are full of shit.
Posted by UNPAID COMMENTER on May 6, 2010 at 3:34 PM · Report this
Beautiful, thoughtful piece. Thank you Brendan.
Posted by erika in beijing on May 6, 2010 at 4:01 PM · Report this
gwhayduke 49
Brendan, I write because there is a chance you'll see this.

Why all this from Aquinas and Augustine, but not Durkheim or Camus? Your mother is Christian - and evidently pretty awesome about her faith. But would she turn a blind eye to those of other faith traditions, including a person from Japan? (I should note that it was a fine piece and nice to read about the Donatists, etc; I am just curious about the slant - neigh - "leaning forward.")

It is also surprising to me that you did not follow Werther fever further - is your answer that it simply depends upon the romanticism of the coverage, or eulogy? Again, the slant - whether or not you are leaving it to implied (Christian) salvation or not, if only by reputation - makes me wonder.
Posted by gwhayduke http://www.farmsanctuary.org/videos/celebrity-ambassadors/ellen-degeneres-shares-why-she-supports-farm-sanctuary/ on May 6, 2010 at 6:20 PM · Report this
gwhayduke 50
For instance, on the latter, I wonder if there are any studies of whether there is a Werther effect in prisons/jails?

(What's the right term, "suicide contagion," or something?)
Posted by gwhayduke http://www.farmsanctuary.org/videos/celebrity-ambassadors/ellen-degeneres-shares-why-she-supports-farm-sanctuary/ on May 6, 2010 at 6:21 PM · Report this
"The direct cost of an attempted suicide—hospital fees, autopsy and investigation costs—is $5,310. The direct cost of a completed suicide is $2,098."

This must be a mistake
Posted by gtownmike on May 6, 2010 at 9:43 PM · Report this
Violet_DaGrinder 52
Really nice article.

I, for one, take a lot of comfort from knowing that suicide is an option. Life is difficult and absurdly painful, and if I didn't feel like living it was my choice, I'd go fucking crazy. I usually have a favorite-method-of-the-moment. Right now, I think injecting a bunch of heparin (anti-coagulent), placing an IV catheter, and floating myself out into a body of water to bleed to death sounds rather pleasant.

Fucked up? Maybe.

I have no intention of killing myself, mind you. I won't do it to the people who love me. It's just nice to think about it. :)
Posted by Violet_DaGrinder http://www.imeem.com/jukeboxmusic51/music/y1malqpG/prince-the-new-power-generation-featuring-eric-leeds-on-f/ on May 6, 2010 at 10:10 PM · Report this
Thanks for writing such a great article on such a "taboo" subject. Maybe if suicides were reported like murders, people would realize the sad state of our mental health care in this country.
Posted by taboo on May 7, 2010 at 12:50 AM · Report this
Very informative and almost enlightening, really. Subjects which are most taboo are typically ones that should be addressed more often, in my opinion.
Posted by insudeup on May 7, 2010 at 9:34 AM · Report this
Matt the Engineer 55
Well it looks like it's started already. I hope you're happy, Stranger.

(really, I appreciate the article. well written, and dealt with a taboo subject head-on with a personal touch. if a few corrupt Chicago politicians have to die because of this, such is life)
Posted by Matt the Engineer on May 7, 2010 at 10:00 AM · Report this
"Self-slaughter" - that makes it sound kind of stupid, doesn't it? And pointless. Not a pleasant thing to volunteer for. A useful phrase to remember. Thanks.
Posted by anony on May 7, 2010 at 10:01 AM · Report this
@ 44. Sorry about that, Gavin. My notes have you saying "momentary impulse" but perhaps I misunderstood. Send me an email (brendan@thestranger.com) so we can get your quote right.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on May 7, 2010 at 10:44 AM · Report this
This article contained a lot of interesting facts about suicide but it lacks a clear intention. Does the author want to discourage people from committing suicide? If so, why include the letter to Mom about how acceptable assisted-suicide is? Why include the number to the Crisis hotline? If someone is in pain (mental or physical) then they should feel that it is fine to kill themselves, right? What exactly is the author's opinion about suicide? Should we support suicide in some instances but try to prevent it in other instances? Why? The author seems to be arguing for both helping people to commit suicide and helping to prevent suicide at the same time. The author doesn't make any sense. The truth is suicide is a way that people lie to themselves and try to convince themselves that they are in control when in fact they are not. The only way to get through life without going insane and trying to kill yourself is to accept that you are not in control and that a higher power who is good is in control and will take care of you no matter how things may seem. Courtney Love was right to curse Cobain for his stupid pathetic and selfish decision. People who are in favor of assisted suicide are stupid pathetic control-freaks who live in fear of reality and hatred of life and God.
Posted by 3Fifteen on May 7, 2010 at 11:21 AM · Report this
Will in Seattle 59
In the good old days, people used to commit suicide in South Lake Union and at Seattle Center.

But if we prevent them from jumping off the Aurora Bridge, they'll go back to blowing their heads off with a gun in Seattle Center again.

Stop hating on our #2 spot - we need to be #1 and beat out San Fran for our Bridge Jumpers!
Posted by Will in Seattle http://www.facebook.com/WillSeattle on May 7, 2010 at 11:55 AM · Report this
Not a jumper story but this happened last week on the eastside:

"Two Chattaroy men were found dead Tuesday, April 6, on Highway 20, near mile marker 393. After investigation, the Pend Oreille County sheriff’s office ruled the deaths a double suicide.

Initially, a homicide investigation started because the bodies were found with handguns, but deputies ruled the deaths suicides after investigating."

Something particularly sad about 2 older siblings committing suicide together next to a gravel pit.

Posted by TomID2009 on May 7, 2010 at 12:24 PM · Report this
"Reports from the University of California show that many people travel across the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge, though the two structures are approximately the same height. There is no record of anyone doing it the other way around."

this sounds acutely ironic, a great artifact of the absurdity of life, like getting a haircut before blowing your head off. but there is no pedestrian walkway across the bay bridge. you'd have to park in highway-speed traffic (with no shoulder) to jump off.
Posted by beat_valley http://twitter.com/beat_valley on May 7, 2010 at 12:38 PM · Report this
I don't mean to sound inflammatory, but I'm curious why you decided to publish this piece if so many experts encouraged you not to. What makes you think you know better than them?
Posted by Thanks for your consideration on May 7, 2010 at 1:35 PM · Report this
For purposes of government cost-benefit analyses, a human life is considered to be worth $3 million or so. Therefore, the barrier on the Aurora Bridge will pay for itself in about 5 months.

Also, that bit about hanging? Massively unethical and irresponsible journalism that will lead directly to people's deaths. That is something that we are all safer not knowing!
Posted by I have always been... east coaster on May 7, 2010 at 1:35 PM · Report this
Your article missed two important points. The first is about those ads you see on TV about anti-depressants causing suicidal thoughts in teenagers. Interesting fact: they are not kidding. The pharmaceutical industry has the same ethics as the Columbian drug cartel. Parents: take note. I know from sad experience. My child was affected. No psychiatrist will cop to this. Second: survivors of suicide attempts and their families are subjected to the worst kinds of cruelty and "good intentions". I had a woman I thought of as a friend call me after my daughter attempted suicdie and say that my daughter was a manipulative liar including when she said to me "I love you". Etc. About a child! Etc. You know who are. The aftermath is really where the story lies. Choose life....
Posted by Somebody's mom on May 7, 2010 at 2:56 PM · Report this
Man, this was hard to read. But so fascinating, well written, and important. The problem I have with suicide being illegal is this: it's society's job to regulate behavioral norms (through mores, folkways, and taboos), not government's.
But the problem with taboo is, breaking it is compelling and addictive, and tends to run in waves. So rather than make the subject of suicide taboo, we have to go the other way and *talk* about it. Not glamorize it--Courtney Love was right on--but talk about it and its effects.

A character from Nick Hornby's 'A Long Way Down' says something along the lines of, "As soon as I jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, I realized the only problem in my life I couldn't solve was that I'd just jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge."
Posted by heatherly on May 7, 2010 at 5:36 PM · Report this
ADoodle 66
Adding to what @64 said, about prescription anti-depressants having suicide as a side effect -- those aren't the only prescription drugs that might cause someone to (temporarily) want to kill themselves. A few years ago I had to be on a drug called prednisone; long story short, it fucked with my brain and I briefly considered driving my car into a tree. I had no idea why I felt like I was going crazy and didn't figure it out till I snapped out of it after changing to a lower dose. Morals of the story: 1) you can't really generalize about why people attempt suicide and assume they're inconsiderate jerks, 2) the medical profession needs to up their game to destigmatize mental illness and increase supervision of patients on dangerous meds.
Posted by ADoodle on May 7, 2010 at 6:28 PM · Report this
I've been reading the Stranger a long time and I think this has got to be one of the best (if not the best) piece I've ever read. I know I'm echoing what a lot of others are saying, but tough shit.
(Randy... of course this made me think of you. I still miss you.)
Posted by science chick on May 7, 2010 at 7:22 PM · Report this
@ 49 Most Japanese are Shintoists and Buddhists simultaneously. Buddhism prohibits suicide too.
Posted by Caralain on May 7, 2010 at 11:03 PM · Report this
notfloats 69

I'm tempted to let this go and just accept that there are ignorant assholes in the world, but come on, dude. Don't blame Brendan for your inability to read. If it seems like he's suggesting that suicide is acceptable, even preferable, in some cases and lamentable and misguided in others, it's because he is. I think he makes an excellent case for that position, too.

As for your claim that people who commit suicide are definitionally insane, well I guess that depends on your definition of sanity. In the words of Emily Dickinson, "Much madness is divinest sense/ to a discerning eye;/much sense the starkest madness." To some people, under some circumstances, I bet it seems far crazier to keep going on with the shitstorm that is life that it is to end it all.

And one more point of rebuttal: shame on you for saying that people who kill themselves hate God. It seems rather petty for God to take offense to people wanting to rid themselves of the pain that He visited upon them in His divine wisdom. Maybe next time He'll do a better job making life not suck so much. Or maybe killing yourself today is just as effective as dying of old age thirty years from now at getting you to God. In either case, I defer to Matthew 7:1 "Judge not lest ye be judged."

@Brendan, excellent article. Well written, well researched. Thank you.
Posted by notfloats on May 7, 2010 at 11:31 PM · Report this
Paxlotl 70
Well said #69!
#58's comment pissed me off too. This article is probably the best thing I've ever read in the Stranger. Good job Brendan Kiley!
Posted by Paxlotl on May 8, 2010 at 9:56 AM · Report this
Guerillacropolis 71
My father committed suicide in 2005 when he was 52 years old (I was 22). My family is Roman Catholic on both sides, and in the aftermath of the suicide it hurt me greatly how nobody at the funeral was very open about exactly how he died. Among my aunts, uncles, and cousins (basically his immediate family and their children) we all know what had happened, but people didn't talk about his disease the way you might after the death of someone with a physical illness like breast cancer or the victim of an accidental death.

My dad was bipolar, and had been treated for it since his 30s. When he died, my grandma had a lot of sadness because her deep faith in Catholicism, since as the article points out, suicide is still considered a mortal sin in the church. Her faith, which is supposed to offer comfort to people, also made her think that her son was in hell for killing himself. Thankfully, she seems to have come to terms with his death (at least as much as any mother can), but I still blame archaic religious thinking for a couple of years of extra-rich misery she went through.

Thank you, Brandon, for writing this. It gives me a lot of new knowledge about suicide (even I think it's an objectively fascinating philosophical idea). Plus, it gave me a concrete history of the church's evolution in thought toward suicide. Perhaps if we can begin looking at this problem, and mental illness in general, in a compassionate, non-judgmental way, those who are thinking about suicide, and people who lose loved ones from suicide, can get more of the help and understanding they need from the communities that they belong to.
Posted by Guerillacropolis http://americanfantastic.com on May 8, 2010 at 11:20 AM · Report this
My friend killed herself last weekend and reading this helped me make some sense out of my feelings. Thanks
Posted by no name here on May 8, 2010 at 1:49 PM · Report this
"We get a fair number of suicide calls," said Crisis Services director Michael Reading. In 2009, the clinic received 4,289 calls "with suicidal content..."

Overcome with grief last fall, in October of 2009 to be exact, weeping as deeply as I had ever wept in my life and all the while holding a knife to my heart and telling myself over and over to just do it; I made a decision to put down that knife and make a phone call first.

I was one of those 4,289 calls in 2009 with "suicidal content" and the Crisis Center saved my life. They took me seriously and were able to get me to see a psychiatrist and get on medication the same day. If it hadn't been for them, I would be dead.
Posted by leicablixa on May 8, 2010 at 8:18 PM · Report this
mariem 74
This is a beautiful, well laid out, eloquent, and touching article. I was mesmerized. Thank you.
Posted by mariem on May 9, 2010 at 12:05 AM · Report this
thankyou... we're all thinking about it finally we can actually read about it.. bravo
Posted by iswhatitis on May 9, 2010 at 6:57 PM · Report this
@72 - my life is roughly divided into two parts; the time before I found my best friends body -- and the time following that day/moment... A "surviver" of suicide is what I call myself sometimes.

I'm so sorry about your friend.

You are a surviver like me now. It's hard, in many ways. Hard work, hard to deal with the way other people might treat you, hard in a million ways.
Do whatever you have to do to stay alive,to survive. This is what I tell myself, this is what I do. Not advice, I'm sure you've already heard more than enough by now.
Posted by tick tock tick tock.... on May 9, 2010 at 7:46 PM · Report this

Sorry - it's "Survivor"
Posted by tick tock tick tock.... on May 9, 2010 at 7:51 PM · Report this
@23 & 43: What's the matter, are you expecting your seventh Glenn Beck-fucked child?
Posted by g.i.jane on May 9, 2010 at 11:37 PM · Report this
I'd like to see an autopsy performed on a suicide survivor. That being said, while I suppose jump-proofing bridges can be seen as a social service toward the greater good, nothing will stop the truly committed from finding a way to off themselves. It's a pity, but it can't be helped.
Posted by degree on May 10, 2010 at 12:27 AM · Report this
80 Comment Pulled
Ah, but the economic impact of a human life is somewhere between 1 and 3 million dollars on average. From a purely economic point of view, it pays to prevent suicide.
Posted by crd on May 10, 2010 at 11:02 AM · Report this
Without question, there are lots of reasons why people want to kill themselves. But I have to say that one cause that no one, especially psychiatrists, seem to ever look at is that people's biochemistry can be so out of balance that they become anxious, depressed, suicidal, psychotic or anything else. If someone goes to a psychiatrist for help with depression, his biochemistry is NEVER looked at. How can I make such a claim? Because I spent ten years taking 2 family members to shrinks until I finally wised up. The shrink orders ZERO lab tests to find out what biochemical problem might be causing the patient to feel depressed or anxious, hyperactive, psychotic, etc. When my own loved one, "Aaron," became psychotic, the shrink claimed that he had "bipolar with psychosis." Talk about a stupid diagnosis. It was only a description of the symptoms, just like having a mechanic give you a "diagnosis" of "Won't Run Disorder" for your car that won't run. Stupid, stupid, stupid. Then he provided talk therapy to talk about the symtoms and he offered synthetic drugs in an attempt to control the symptoms. What matters is what is CAUSING the psychosis, depression or anything else, right? If you don't know what the causes are, you can't possibly FIX the problem. It was only when I switched to "orthomolecular" treatment that Aaron recovered. And he recovered 100%. ("Ortho" means "correct" and the term means "to correct the biochemistry.") Correcting a person's biochemistry is something shrinks have no clue how to do. All they are taught is how to match up symptoms with synthetic, patented, expensive drugs. In fact, our entire mental health care system is about treating the symptoms ONLY while the real, underlying, biochemical causes are completely ignored. Gee, I wonder if it's because virtually every medical school in the country is supported by tens of millions of dollars from Big Pharma every year. Linda Santini, author of "The Secrets to Recovery from Mental Illness."
Posted by Older&Wiser on May 10, 2010 at 1:14 PM · Report this
lyllyth 83

I too have felt that awful pull, the strange compulsion. I hate walking over Yesler to get to work. And back to the train at night.

It's an encompassingly morbid curiosity, and some days I have a very real fear that I won't be able to beat it down. Those days, I walk faster.
Posted by lyllyth on May 10, 2010 at 1:16 PM · Report this
gtownmike@51, yes i also thought those numbers made no sense. i think they got turned around: the greater sum should be for completed suicide (hence, including the autopsy and investigation costs kiley erroneously attributed to "attempted" suicide).
Posted by ellarosa on May 10, 2010 at 1:24 PM · Report this
Thought provoking article. I think most commit suicide because they're just really given up on the future or they were harassed in some way on http://www.dirtyphonebook.com or facebook or something like that. The key is to have people around you that love you and want to help you in your time of need. That's why you should always tell somebody you care for them because you don't want anybody to think that they don't have somebody that they can talk to.
Posted by AppleBottomDancer on May 10, 2010 at 1:35 PM · Report this
Bub 86
Because my best friend committed suicide in 2006, I had been consciously avoiding this article until now. Mr. Kiley skillfully explores many of the questions I've had since that time. I have imagined my friend's last hours, pictured his face as he looked down into the East River, wondered how his religious family would respond, questioned the negative stigma, got pissed at him, and ultimately came around to a deeper understanding and appreciation for end-of-life issues. It needs to be discussed, even if there are no set answers. As sad as I remain all these years, I know that my friend is free from decades long pain, and that I have learned how to be a better friend.
Posted by Bub on May 10, 2010 at 1:48 PM · Report this
"A 2005 article in Psychiatric News says some jumpers aren't necessarily depressed or chronic suicide attempters—sometimes people are simply overwhelmed by a sudden desire to leap"

Everytime I'm at a mariners game at sitting in the nosebleeds I wonder about what it'd be like to jump.
Posted by CitizenShip on May 10, 2010 at 2:41 PM · Report this
#84 - clearly---
But I wonder why he hasnt fixed it...otherwise, a great article...
Posted by gtownmike on May 10, 2010 at 4:24 PM · Report this
Rob2tall 89
Every time I walk on the bridge over Deception Pass-I feel a compelling urge to jump just for the thrill of it-not to off myself or freak anyone out.
Its from an experience in the Army when I stupidly volunteered to learn how to fly.I was dumb enough to think the Army was going to teach me to fly a Huey gunship.The reality was they needed dummies to jump out of a plane carrying a large load of C4 to blow up some hill in Vietnam.
That experience scared the crap out of me as I fell from the plane-actually I was so freaked out that the jump master tossed me out the door like a sack of potatoes-the thrill was momentary as I fell-its a rush to fall from several thousand feet- almost flying-and you really don't feel anything other then weightlessness.
I always hold on to the railing-fearing the wind will carry me over the bridge railing or a semi or motor home with those extended mirrors will knock me over-falling into the freezing abyss of raging currents below.
I am not certain why I feel like jumping-but I am reasonably frightened by height and falling, though I am nearly 6'8" tall.
Its an odd sensation. While living in the SF bay area-I saw a lady jump off the Golden Gate bridge onto a passing container cargo ship below.It was very unreal-and the ship was blowing an emergency horn as she crawled over the fence that keeps you from falling.
With all the noise-you could hear her body smack onto a container-I suspect she died right away.
I have had a few friends try to off themselves
by many means-none were a success.
Its a frightening affair-I prefer to let old age or maybe a bolt of lightning get me..

Good reporting!
North Everett
Posted by Rob2tall on May 11, 2010 at 10:35 AM · Report this
@ 51, 84, and 88:

Nope, those figures are correct, at least according to the "Comprehensive Textbooks of Suidcidology." I'm guessing it's because it costs more to take care of a living, wounded body than a corpse.

Those million-dollar figures other commenters cited are for direct *and* indirect costs to the government, an individual, and his/her families and employers (lost wages, etc.). In that case, the completed suicides cost more.

But for direct hospital and investigation costs, the incomplete attempts are more expensive.
Posted by Brendan Kiley on May 11, 2010 at 10:44 AM · Report this
Rob2tall 91

Get a grip on your own reality!

My dad suffered for over ten years from the exposure he had at Hanford building containment cylinders for waste and the A-bomb.
He had heart attacks and infections that ate away his chest,lost his sternum,all his ribs,and slowly died a horrific death.After ten years of 70 pills a day to control his body, he finally asked his Dr to help-the Dr said quit taking blood pressure pills and in 3 days you will fall asleep and won't feel anything or wake up.
Thats compassion-not anything else-
your comments prove you are clueless and heartless!
Assisted suicide is a remedy for horrific illness and long drawn out slow deaths that many face-we keep them alive in misery because we are too afraid to allow them dignity in life or death. Society wants to prop them up-dope them up-keep robbing them of a decent existence.
Posted by Rob2tall on May 11, 2010 at 10:49 AM · Report this
Well written article. My family has gone through a jump (survived) this past year. The cover silhouette is eeringly similar. Rather than pull punches or be sensitive to whomever, you probably should have gone ahead and showed a bridge railing. I also very much doubt jumpers will be crowding the bridge in a big rush as the new fencing begins to close in.
Posted by conium on May 11, 2010 at 11:50 AM · Report this
I've been reading the Stranger semi-regularly since its first printing (1991). This is the finest article I can remember reading in that time. Thank you for making it available.
Posted by pallid on May 11, 2010 at 1:56 PM · Report this
As someone who recently tried to kill myself I found your article cold, unhelpful and rude. Comparing yourself to Goethe (a favorite of mine) is a joke as this article had no artistic merit whatsoever. It is also incredibly rude to mention the names of those who have taken their own lives as they probably had friends and family who are still around and sensitive to the subject, I can speak to this as I have have been through the death of friends. It seems that you have gone through neither trauma and should stick to what you know about Brendan. I must say I am disappointed.
Posted by Eratoxin on May 11, 2010 at 2:28 PM · Report this
Oh, my heart goes out to your dad #58. What a terrible condition. The fact that he faced it for so long tells me he cared about life and those he loved. He didn't want to miss it and paid a terrible price to be there. I'm sorry he was so miserable. And I am grateful the doctor told him a way out that left the choice in his hands. I believe that is a simple act of compassion. In ancient times, badly injured people did not have long lives anyhow. So you could say your dad went back to the natural order of things by refusing modern day chemicals.
Posted by a nonny mouse on May 11, 2010 at 10:40 PM · Report this
Part of my last comment did not post. Here it is.

My brother in law committed suicide twelve years ago by jumping off an overpass in Seattle. I was so upset I could not attend his funeral. I was in shock for a long time.

I couldn't even talk about it until recently. It took me twelve years to get to that point.

I was so affected that in the first three years I went on several different anti depressants and saw two psychiatrists. I eventually went off the medication, but I was still profoundly affected. I was fearful, angry, sad. For a long time.

Unforeseen suicide is not a private act. Although it may seem that way to the person at the time. It affects more than the person committing the act. When my brother in law jumped he did not go down alone. He took a part of my heart and mind with him for a long, long time.

Right after it happened I had a dream. We were standing on the overpass. He jumped and I reached out trying to save him. And I heard his voice say, "This is not your story. You can't come with me." But despite the dream, I lost part of my own life for a long time. And I didn't want to let go of him. I didn't want to lose him forever. That's how drastically suicide can affect those who remain.

Suicide can set off a ripple effect in a family that can last generations. Especially if someone is trying to raise small children and give their very best to them. It takes time accept that someone they loved hurt themselves. And that takes time away from the children when you have to comfort yourself.

I hope I am never affected by it again. There is always hope. If you are thinking of it. Please find something to hang onto. Like this article says. Something to continue living for.

Why? Because in my own life I have been very down. And thought of it too. But over time I have come to understand that things change. And even when we have profound losses that sink us into despair. Loss of a job. Or a nasty break up. Or the unthinkable. The loss of a child. There are still new days ahead.

I am not speaking to the terminally ill. Or people who are in horrific pain. That is different. I am talking to healthy, depressed individuals who have lost hope.

Call a suicide hotline. Be good to yourself. And if that doesn't register with you... Be good to those around you. Think of someone you will affect who affects children you care about. Anything. And make a call.

That's all I can think of to say.

Posted by a nonny mouse on May 11, 2010 at 11:01 PM · Report this
JonSM99 97
Good piece, but cut out all the indulgent swings into the irrelevant tangent of the writer faux-debating the Christian morality of suicide with his mother. I'm not Christian, and I've never met your mother. Moreover, moral arguments generally aren't going to dissuade sad people already considering suicide from attempting it. The LAWS on suicide would interest me more, but as I've never been Christian I really couldn't care less what their moral take on it is. For such a "progressive", "edgy" publication (like the sensationalistic and misleading headline about Sound Transit "blocking" an extension of the First Hill Streetcar), I was surprised and annoyed that any religion's moral take was examined, and then only that of one religion many of us don't subscribe to. Is The Stranger really among those we have to remind that not all of us are Christian??
Posted by JonSM99 on May 12, 2010 at 1:15 AM · Report this
@84 & 87:

It's far more expensive to give/get someone medical treatment than to just cremate or bury them. If a death is very obviously a suicide (i.e. jumping from the Aurora bridge or lying down in front of a train) there isn't much investigation that goes into it - a police report gets written, a biohazard team cleans up the mess, and the family must dispose of the body.

Having recently dealt with the death of my grandmother, I can tell you that the bare-bones cost of cremating someone is about $900, and burial about $2000. A one-day stay in the hospital, however, costs around $4000, not including meds. Therefore, I think Brandon's average costs are probably quite correct.

Posted by ric26800 on May 12, 2010 at 8:20 AM · Report this
Excellent piece, Brendan. Especially the open letter to your mother. It will always be this kind of writing that keeps me coming back to The Stranger to read your work. The article is informative, thought-provoking, and humorous ( a true achievement, considering the subject). Thank you for once again being brave enough to write intelligently and creatively about something most of us would rather not have to think about.
Posted by SMAJ on May 12, 2010 at 1:08 PM · Report this

"The direct cost of an attempted suicide—hospital fees, autopsy and investigation costs—is $5,310. The direct cost of a completed suicide is $2,098."

I can understand it may cost more but obviously a non-completed suicide doesn't have autopsy costs -

sorry to be such a nit
Posted by gtownmike on May 12, 2010 at 6:03 PM · Report this
Hi Brendan: Overall a good, thought-provoking piece. One thing I wish you'd covered however, are suicides related to student loan debt. Student loans cannot be discharged due to bankruptcy, elapsed time or disability; they literally follow student borrowers to the grave and some choose to hasten that process. As documented on studentloanjustice.org, some student debtors commit suicide after enduring relentless harassment from student loan collection agencies that are not subject to the standard consumer protection laws.

Posted by Uji on May 12, 2010 at 8:38 PM · Report this
@25 there is an episode of radiolab titled "after life" and at about 26:30 begins the story of ken baldwin who jumped off the golden gate bridge and survived. he regretted his decision mid-fall...
Posted by shadesofgrey on May 21, 2010 at 9:02 AM · Report this
onion 103
yeah Brendan, you look a bit of a fool here, insisting that attempted suicides require autopsies...extremely sloppy and laughable that you defended it

and i also think that you should not describe just how easy it is to hang oneself. irresponsible and selfish "journalism."
Posted by onion on May 22, 2010 at 6:03 PM · Report this
"hangings" are really just prison "leanings forward.", that's how my partner died thanks for your compassion in describing it so coldly ... lose some one to suicide then re-write this article you arsehole
Posted by jerra on May 20, 2012 at 6:17 AM · Report this
Just found your article. Great read. As someone in his 60's whose depressed due to looming personal financial crisis and a few health problems, I would be amiss if I said I'm not thinking about taking matters into my own hands, so to speak. Not my first choice, but life is what it is.
I particularly appreciated the parts about suicide in western history.
I wonder if anyone has considered that due to the many choices we make in life concerning diet, drinking, smoking, our mental state, etc, that to some degree, we are all trying to hasten our demise. Maybe in the final analysis, it's all a matter of degree
Posted by graybeard on August 14, 2013 at 4:23 AM · Report this

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