by Eduardo Vega, MA, Executive Director of MHASF
Exercise is crucial medicine for me, as it is for many. I feel certain, for instance, that training over many years in yoga, martial arts, and now running, has saved me from the worst effects of recurrent depression that were part of my life since childhood. Whenever possible on Tuesday mornings before work, I run to the center of the Golden Gate Bridge, to the landmark of light-pole 69. More people die by suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge on Tuesday than any other day. And it seems possible that at Pole 69 more people have jumped to their death than any other single place in the world.
You get accustomed to it, of course, but the beauty of the Bridge can still strike you on a given day–the dramatic rise of the red towers through shawls of fog, the infinite vista of ocean, and the powerful detachment from land and city.
As I run on it I think about the people who come here in despair, people who are feeling that death is the best way, or maybe the only way, to wrest power, dignity or simply relief from a life that seems unendurable; people in a place similar to where I once was.
When I get to Pole 69 I spend a quiet moment. Sometimes I think about the four friends I lost to suicide, or the parents, brothers, and sisters I’ve met whose lives were devastated by loss in the wake of such a death. I look at the water and feel the rails and try to connect with the many people who have come here seeking a resolution, however tragic, to their sense of utter desolation. Sometimes I reflect on my own suicidal moments and attempts. The seemingly endless months where I felt so far from hope, the years in which I yearned daily for an accidental decisive death. I think of the time I took actions to do the same, the fleeting feeling that I was no longer a victim, that in planning to die I finally had taken the power away my pain.
As I stand on the Bridge, I know that somewhere in the world there is someone asking themselves –what is worse, to be a mental patient, or to die?
Our biases about mental illnesses run deep–cultural prejudice, stigma, and shame are pervasive in our media, our conversations, and our dinner tables. They are alive within the system of mental healthcare, too— even though mental health providers feel professional stigma they also pass it on to clients through slights on individuals’ dignity, mistreatment or low expectations that diminish people’s hope for their lives.
To free our society from the tragedies of suicide we must make personal dignity more powerful than symptoms or disability, we must foster communities that believe in and support their people, not regardless of, but especially when they are facing personal struggles.
I believe we can make this evolution happen– we can challenge our history of fear and judgment and build on our resources of compassion. We can take the side of people when they are suffering, seeking to understand, rather than label, to help without depriving anyone of the strengths that come with overcoming hurdles.
The course back from the Bridge is tougher. A large part of it is up a steep hill and not too pleasant. Some mornings it can be hard to keep going, even to put one foot in front of the other.
If we were successful in eliminating stigma, I know people would not be jumping from this bridge twice a month. We would not be dying at Pole 69 because we would be able to prevent mental illness or to manage it successfully; we would have the resources to create enduring wellness in our mental and emotional lives, and an atmosphere of acceptance. We would be healthier because we would have the right kinds of support from our communities and families, from professionals that see people before diagnoses, from helpers who know that dignity is more important than medication, that hope is more powerful than pain.
As an attempt survivor, a loss survivor, and a mental health advocate, I am convinced that preventing death by suicide is the result of many minds, many hearts, and many hands. As we move forward, I’ll continue to add some legs and feet to the mix, to take your thoughts and good energy with me on the road to Pole 69, where we can all make a difference together.