Where Are They Now?: The Fate of Suicide Attempt Survivors

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Hope after a suicide attemptSay someone wants to die so badly that they go to the Golden Gate Bridge to jump off. But then they are stopped from jumping. What happens to them afterward?

You might think that, once freed from the authority figures who prevented their suicide on the bridge,  they still went on to by suicide. After all, they were intent on dying. It would be logical to assume that being prevented from jumping merely delayed their death.

Such an assumption would be wrong. In the 1970s, a researcher named Richard Seiden wanted to find out what happened to 515 people who came to the Golden Gate Bridge to die within the previous 35 years, but who were stopped by California Highway Patrol officers. He published the results in an article titled “Where Are They Now?: A Follow-up Study of Suicide Attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge.”

What Dr. Seiden found is a remarkable testament to the fact that a suicidal crisis is often – very often – temporary.

Of the 515 people whose attempt was interrupted, 35 later died by suicide.  Taking into account suicides that might have been missed by researchers,  Dr. Seiden stated that 90% of people who tried to jump off the Golden Gate Bridge did not go on to die by suicide. 

Why Did they Decide to Stay Alive?

This research, though 35 years old, still holds true. Even though a prior suicide attempt dramatically increases the risk for future suicide, studies have demonstrated that most people (roughly 90%) who survive a suicide attempt do not go on to die by suicide.

There are different possible reasons why people who attempt suicide, or try to make such an attempt, might choose afterward to stay alive. The most intuitive reason is that suicidal crises are, by their nature, temporary. More often than not, the crisis passes.

Too, people who attempt suicide may receive the help they need afterwards. Friends and family may rally to their side. Therapists and doctors may help provide relief. The person’s reasons for dying may begin to fade.

Another possibility is that the instinct to live kicks in once someone comes close to dying. Until then, that instinct may have been obscured by depression, stress, hopelessness or despair.

The Instinct to Live

The story of Kevin Hines demonstrates the clarity that can finally appear when someone’s life is on the line. In 2000, he actually did jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Precious few people survive such a fall; the water about 200 feet below acts the same as concrete when a person lands on it at high speed.

Although severe depression led him to jump off the bridge, Kevin Hines has stated:

“The very second I let go, I knew I had made a big mistake.”

For Kevin Hines, the will to live kicked in immediately. He managed to turn himself upright in the few seconds it took for him to hit the water; this way, he did not land on his head. After he was rescued, he continued to live, and lives still, serving as a suicide prevention advocate at the national level.

Life Lessons

Obviously, the will to live does not reassert itself in everyone who has tried to die. We cannot overlook that 10% of people who survive a suicide attempt do go on to die by suicide.  And for more than half of people who die by suicide, the fatal act was their first attempt at death.  

The tragedy of suicide is indisputable. The survival of suicide attempters is not inevitable.

Yet it gives me great hope that the vast majority of suicide attempt survivors remain just that – survivors.  This is perhaps the best argument for preventing suicide. It is true that suicide sometimes defies even the best efforts to thwart it. But overall, the evidence is that prevention is not simply a temporary delay of death.

Suicide prevention can save lives. And for those whose lives were saved, life goes on.


© Copyright 2013 Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW, All Rights Reserved. Written for www.speakingofsuicide.com

Photos purchased from Fotolia.com

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13 Reader Comments

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  1. zukti man says:

    I am a suicide survivor from India. I tried by drinking mosquito poison. My failure as a person was responsible for my extreme step. I know you mean well, but I always feel I wished I never survived. Now I don’t know if I can fight it, but coping with failure and constant depression is impossible.
    I mean how long can I go ahead.

  2. chiMaxx says:

    Sadly, your post is being used by some commenters to justify the Golden Gate Bridge net boondoggle. Seiden’s study shows that those who encounter a personal, human intervention during the suicide attempt are less likely to end up dying of suicide (though he admits that another big percentage continue self-destructive behaviors–e.g., excessive drinking–that lead to an early “natural” death), but it says nothing about the efficacy of physical barriers. and the evidence around them is not good. In Toronto, the barrier at the Bloor Viaduct did not reduce the number of people who died of suicide by jumping in the city; it just moved them to other locations. The suicide barrier on the Sydney Harbour Bridge simply rerouted jumpers to a cliff popularly known as The Gap. The Golden Gate net project is like putting a bandaid on an ulcer.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      ChiMaxx, thank you for writing and for raising important points in your comment. It gives me a good opportunity to dispel concerns that others may have, too.

      You note that installation of a “suicide barrier” at the Bloor Viaduct in Toronto merely caused people to go to other locations in Toronto to die by suicide. In fact, the increase in suicides at other locations in Toronto did not make up for the dramatic decrease in suicides at the viaduct itself. You can read more about this at http://www.bmj.com/content/341/bmj.c4447.

      Overall, a meta-analysis of numerous studies that looked at bridges’ suicide barriers found them to be effective. The article’s abstract states: ” Following the interventions, there was an 86% reduction in jumping suicides per year at the sites in question (95% CI 79% to 91%). There was a 44% increase in jumping suicides per year at nearby sites (95% CI 15% to 81%), but the net gain was a 28% reduction in all jumping suicides per year in the study cities (95% CI 13% to 40%).”

      These findings are consistent with other studies that have looked at “method substitution,” which can occur when one suicide method is made unavailable and people substitute it with another. Generally, research into method substitution has found that blocking access to a suicide method results in fewer suicides overall, even when taking into consideration those suicides by people who found other ways to die. Simply put, means restriction saves lives.

      I am hopeful that similar results will be found after the suicide barrier at the Golden Gate bridge is in place. If prior research is any indication, the barrier will save lives, even when taking into account people who go elsewhere to die by suicide. But, as you said, the problem is also bigger than a question of means. Suicide needs to be addressed from many angles, of which means restriction is only one.

      Thanks again for your thoughtful comment.

  3. Stacy Thomaa says:

    I am so glad my attempt did not end in my death. I was able to make it out of the hopelessness and despair that led to my attempt. My hope for others feeling like that is they tell someone who can help them.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thank you for sharing, Stacy. It is always wonderful to hear from someone who made it out to the other side. You provide inspiration to others who still are stuck in that hopelessness and despair.

  4. Julie says:

    I know someone who hanged themself 18 months ago after a buildup of personal problems and much alcohol that night, but rescue services were called and saved him. He recovered physically, but mentally he is now depressed and on anti-depressants,has anxiety attacks, is too emotional for working, and keeps saying he wishes he had succeeded with his attempt as he feels a burden to everyone.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      That is so sad, Julie. I hope that he is able to get effective help, both psychologically and pharmaceutically. I wonder what psychotherapy he has tried. Has he tried cognitive behavior therapy? Dialectical behavior therapy? Those two have shown some effectiveness at reducing suicidal ideation and behavior.

      It certainly sounds like your friend’s antidepressants are not working. There are so many types of antidepressants these days (around 40), plus mood stabilizers, plus antipsychotic medications that can also be used to treat depression. And these different medications can be combined at various dosages. So there are many, many more medications and medication combinations that he can try. I hope he is seeing a psychiatrist for his medications, not a PCP, because psychiatrists are much more well versed in the benefits, risks, side effects, etc. of the different medications.

      The sad thing is that, as I say in my “letter,” some of what your friend thinks and believes may actually be true, but his mind is probably also shutting him out of other truths that could balance out his pain. For example, he may be telling himself that the way he feels and is now is the way he will feel and be forever. It may feel 100% true to him. But in reality, he can’t know what the future holds. None of us can.

      I often think that if we are going to make up what we tell ourselves about our future, we might at least make it good. Or, at least, balanced!

      Good luck to your friend, Julie, and thanks for commenting. Maybe some of the posts on this site could be helpful to him?

  5. sparrbar@digis.net says:

    I am a three time attempt suicide survivor and it has been a year since my last attempt and the ideation has pretty much left me. I am a 60+ year old woman with four grown kids and six grandkids and when the darkness set in I could no longer see the effect this would have had on their lives. Found it was in part due to hormone imbalance along with sugar imbalances, throw in that it’s winter along with little sleep, emotional bombs going off and I had the perfect storm. I am so very grateful now to be alive and I hope to find ways to assist others going through the deep abyss that can sometimes take over your entire being… take another breath, and another……….

  6. Tony says:

    I have battled the thoughts of suicide for many years but after I had children those thoughts died. I live with a higher purpose now, but prior to my children I went through hell and constantly entertained the thought of killing myself.

    I wish you all the very best and I pray you each find a way to manage and control the thoughts of suicide.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Hello Tony, so sorry for my belated response. It is wonderful that having children seems to have inoculated you against suicidal thoughts. Children are a major reason for living for many people who battle suicidal thoughts. Parenthood does not protect everyone, though. There are many people with children whose pain or distorted thinking overrides all else, in spite of their best wishes. The memoir “Half in Love: Surviving the Legacy of Suicide” captures very well, to a painful degree, how someone who deeply loves their children can simultaneously feel pulled to end her life. Whether one’s anchor to life is children or some other passion, it is a gift to have a reason for living that outweighs suicidal thoughts. I wish everyone could receive this gift, and I am grateful that you and others have done so!

  7. Anne DiNoto says:

    Your message here is a good one. I think this message needs to be made more clear and put in ads, etc. similar to cancer ads, etc.

    • Stacey Freedenthal, PhD, LCSW says:

      Thanks for sharing, Anne. We certainly do need to continue educating people about suicide prevention, including the reality that most people who survive a suicide attempt choose life afterwards. I know that this surprises many people.