We moved to the San Francisco Bay area about two years ago. One of the things I love about living here is to see the Golden Gate Bridge from atop a hill in Berkeley.
One of the scariest things to me about living here is the Golden Gate Bridge because I know that there is a 98.7% success rate of death by suicide.
The Golden Gate Bridge is the number one destination in the world where people come to die by suicide. According to Bridgewatch Angels founder Mia Munayer (Lieutenant with the Pleasonton Police Department), "there were 196 men, women, and children who came to the bridge to end their lives in 2014. Over 150 of them were stopped by the combined efforts of the Bridge District Police, CHP, and the Bridgewatch Angels."
On my bad days, I think about that bridge. I know death by suicide is not a good idea, and yet I think about that bridge. Just the other night, on Christmas Eve, I was thinking about that bridge. I thought about how it seems so logical at times, that my family, even though they love me, would be better off without me. At times, I believe that I ruin lives and that even if people love me, it is too dangerous for them for me to live in this world. And so I think about that bridge.
I have been in treatment for mental illness for over 15 years, so I know not to go to that bridge no matter how logical it seems in my mind. I know that I have to reach out and ask for help and find other ways to manage my illness. (If you are at risk of death by suicide, please call the National Suicide Hotline 24 hours a day at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
On Christmas Eve, rather than listen to my thoughts about that bridge, I decided that on Christmas Day I would stay in bed all day and just get through the day the best way that I could, trying not to have contact with anyone. I knew that would not make a great Christmas for my family, but I also knew it was the best I could do at the time.
I woke up on Christmas morning and checked Facebook, like I always do, and I saw a post on a friend’s page from Frank Somerville, a journalist on KTVU in San Francisco. The post was about an organization called Bridgewatch Angels that goes out on holidays and walks the bridge to look out for people who may be contemplating or attempting to die by suicide by jumping off the bridge. I took that as a sign to focus on something good rather than focus on the fear of the bridge and how it seems so tempting during dark times. Rather than stay in bed on Christmas and just survive, I decided to join the Bridgewatch Angels and walk the bridge and hopefully help other people who might be like me.
While I have had suicidal thoughts, I have never had a suicide attempt. I can understand how other people do though. You honestly believe that the world is better off without you and/or that no one cares about you. Many people who have attempted suicide say that if someone had just smiled at them or showed caring, that would have made all the difference. In fact, Kevin Hines (one of the 26 people since 1937 to have survived jumping off the bridge) describes his experience that fateful day in a recent Buzzfeed video. He was visibly upset, crying, and disoriented. No one stopped to ask what was wrong. Finally, a tourist stopped him. She wanted her picture taken. He agreed and after five snapshots she left and was gone. At that point he believed no one cared. He then hurled himself over the bridge.
Mia Munayer shared a conversation she had with Kevin Hines when she was first forming the organization in 2011. He contacted her to express his gratitude to the Bridgewatch Angels for their efforts. He told her that no one who goes to the Golden Gate Bridge to commit suicide actually wants to die. They want to know that someone cares.
Few people understand that an altered mind makes us believe things that are not real. People who think about or attempt death by suicide do not want to die, rather, they believe they have to die or they are supposed to die. Often a brain that is not working correctly needs a jolt to counter those devastating messages. That is why it makes a difference when we check in with strangers- smile and say “hi.” If we see someone crying we can ask them if they need anything. Just seeing another person can change their brain, and send an alternate message that someone cares about them.
That is what happened for me when I woke up on Christmas morning and saw the post about Bridgewatch. I saw that there were people who cared. This one post, for me, was the post of light amidst hundreds of posts of shining trees, beautiful presents, and smiling posed families.
Being able to participate in Bridgewatch gave me purpose on Christmas day. My husband and son drove with me and they played at Golden Gate park while I walked the bridge talking with the other wonderful volunteers and checking in with people on the bridge if they looked concerned, sad, alone, or just lost in thoughts of their own. Being part of the Bridgewatch Angels made our whole family happy. My son was happy that we spent the day as a family doing important things like having fun together and helping other people. This is a perfect Christmas message. I showed my son that Christmas, or any day, is about the love you share with the world and it is about trying every day to live the best life you can- whether you live with mental illness or not.
Oh, and if you want to know, did we save a life yesterday? Who knows. It can take one smile, one question- “How are you doing today?”- to change a life, to send the message “You are loved.” I would rather not know. I would rather go home without a story to tell.
More About the Bridgewatch Angels:
Mia Munayer was able to take some time and talk to me about how the Bridgewatch Angels organization got started. In 2010, Mia went to Crisis Intervention Training as part of her job as a police officer. During the training, she saw excerpts from the movie “The Bridge,” a documentary about the Golden Gate Bridge suicides. She was shocked to learn that the Golden Gate Bridge is the number one suicide destination in the world where one life is lost nearly every week. These staggering statistics and tragic events compelled Mia and her husband (also in law enforcement) to do something about this. They started going out in 2010 to walk the bridge seeking out individuals who were in trouble and in need of help. They quickly realized that to be effective, they needed more help and started by increasing awareness on their social media.
During her research, Mia found the Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization dedicated to stopping suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge with a strong advocacy for the installation of a suicide barrier. The Bridge Rail Foundation is comprised of engaged community members and family survivors of people who have died by suicide at the bridge. Mia told them what she was doing and asked if they would help her with volunteers to patrol the bridge. They referred her to Brando Jessie who organized a New Year’s day event called Bridgewatch since 2008. Mia contacted Brando and shared her desire to join efforts. It was important to Mia to increase the number of volunteers and coordinate Bridgewatch events throughout the year with an emphasis on all major holidays.
In 2011 she and Brando formalized an organization called the Bridgewatch Angels. They created a website and used their social media presence to mobilize volunteers to engage in suicide prevention on Valentine’s Day, Thanksgiving Day, Christmas Day/Eve, and New Year’s Day/Eve. Through the power of community and social media, the Bridgewatch Angels organization began to grow in numbers and volunteers can be seen on the bridge throughout the year. Most recently, journalist Frank Somerville from KTVU in San Francisco posted about Bridgewatch Angels which exploded interest in the organization. Mia says that as the organization expands, the stories she hears from volunteers and their acts of kindness towards those they meet on the bridge exemplifies true compassion. Over the years, Mia has developed close relationships with the family survivors and they have invited her to the events honoring their loved ones. She finds the greatest inspiration from their strength. She holds their loved ones close to her heart as do all the Bridgewatch Angels to honor their memory.
Mia currently manages all Bridgewatch Angel events. She strongly encourages newcomers to participate and describes Bridgewatch as a transformative and rewarding experience. For more information, Mia can be reached at 925 822-8003 or email her at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bridgewatch Angels will do another bridgewatch on New Years Eve and New Years Day and you can find out about volunteering on their Facebook page: Bridgewatch Angels.