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.
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
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