2013-03-28 / Front Page

New bridge signs offer hope to the suicidal

Prevention hotline receives nearly 1,500 calls annually
By Ken Shane

A new sign offering help to people with suicidal thoughts was recently attached to the Jamestown Verrazano Bridge sign on the western side. 
Photo by tim riel A new sign offering help to people with suicidal thoughts was recently attached to the Jamestown Verrazano Bridge sign on the western side. Photo by tim riel Perhaps you’ve seen the signs. A new one was just attached to the Jamestown Verrazano Bridge sign at the western foot of the bride. They also appear on the approach to the Newport Bridge. The message is clear: it offers help to people who may be considering a suicide attempt by leaping from one of Narragansett Bay’s bridges.

The signs were placed there by the Samaritans of Rhode Island, a suicide prevention resource center.

The Samaritans is an international organization that was founded in 1953. The group’s mission is to befriend anyone who is considering suicide. The Rhode Island chapter was established in Providence in 1977. It is nonprofit and nondenominational.

The Samaritans believe that suicide is generally preventable. The group’s mission is to help reduce the incidents.

According to Executive Director Denise Panichas, the signs on the Newport and Jamestown bridges are meant to be an awareness tool. The purpose is to let people know that suicide should never be an option. As far as the effectiveness of the signs, Panichas said that everyone who calls is asked how they heard of the organization. Often times people will reference the signs on the bridges.

“We believe that it does raise awareness,” she said.

When the Samaritans receive a call, a trained volunteer will ask the caller if they are suicidal. If the caller answers in the affirmative, the volunteer will let the caller know that there is someone ready and willing to discuss it with them. Befriending the caller, which means nonjudgmental listening, comes next. According to the Samaritans, this is particularly helpful when family, friends and professionals are not available.

Panichas said that three things are understood about the truly suicidal: they are without hope, they believe that no one cares if they live, and they think that they would be doing everyone a favor if they commit suicide.

“We want that caller to understand that we are about them and we do not want them to die,” Panichas said. “Befriending can help to de-escalate situations, and it’s also an opportunity to point people in the direction of hope.”

Panichas said that in the case of an emergency, when someone’s life is at risk, her organization urges people to call 911. The reason for this is because Rhode Island is unique in that it is one of the few states with a statewide GPS that allows authorities to quickly locate a person in trouble.

Samaritan volunteers go through a 21-hour training program. They receive all manner of calls, ranging from people who are at immediate risk to lonely people who call each evening just to say goodnight. The volunteers are trained to listen and point people in the direction of help. The Samaritans have about 225 volunteers; 79 work on the 272-4044 hotline.

“Most of the callers that we get today are what we call daily supported callers,” said Panichas. “People can call and have someone listen as often as they need to.”

Last year the Samaritans received 4,376 calls, an average of 12 a day. Budget cuts have resulted in volunteers not being available at all hours. Funding from the state Department of Education has been withdrawn, which means the organizations cannot send volunteers to schools anymore. Other grants have also dried up. On the other hand, foundation support is evolving.

“Suicide is not at the top of everybody’s agenda,” said Panichas. “We’ve also felt the stigma associated with being supporters of the Samaritans. Often times people just don’t want to be associated with something that relates to suicide. Yet so many people are affected by it.”

In an effort to raise funds, the Samaritans opened a fine art gallery called Forget Me Not in Pawtucket in December 2011. The gallery features work by artists from all over the state. The space also features a gift shop. A portion of the proceeds from the art and the gift shop goes to the Samaritans.

Panichas said that bridges have historically been the focus of people who wish to attempt suicide. According David Darlington of the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, the issue of suicide is of concern to his employees. He said it is something that is faced by the operators of all major bridges.

“We have a relationship with the Samaritans,” Darlington said. “We have a constant dialog with them about how to educate people and try to avoid this as much as possible. There are obviously limitations to how much we can do.”

Darlington said when 911 receives a call about a possible suicidal person on the bridge, first responders are dispatched. In every case someone from the turnpike authority responds to the emergency. Darlington said authority workers are highly experienced in the area and know how to deal with the issues involved. Unfortunately, intervention is not always possible.

“Most people are not there to be rescued when people respond to the bridge,” said Darlington. “Most people who are choosing that as their exit get out of their vehicle and go over the side of the bridge.”

According to Darlington, no physical barrier has been erected on the Newport Bridge to prevent people from jumping. One reason is that such a barrier would detract from the aesthetics of the bridge from a tourism standpoint. More importantly, he said, such a barrier could prevent first responders from getting to people who have managed to get to the other side of it.

Darlington said it’s his hope that through working with the Samaritans and educating his own staff, suicides can be minimized.

“It is a tragic thing, but unfortunately big, architecturally significant structures like bridges are a common destination for people with that on their mind,” he said.

While the state police has jurisdiction on the Newport Bridge, local police are often called to respond to incidents. Police Chief Ed Mello said that on average there is an incident on either the Jamestown or Newport bridge about once a month. These incidents include jumpers or someone contemplating it.

On March 2, Jamestown Detective Derek Carlino and a policeman from Newport responded to the Newport Bridge where someone was already over the railing and ready to jump. Carlino spoke to the person until the Newport officer arrived, at which point the two officers were able to reach over the railing and pull the person back from the brink.

When a call is received by either the Jamestown, Newport or state police, the other departments are immediately informed. Despite the fact that the state police have jurisdiction on the Newport Bridge, Jamestown police officers are often called to respond because they can get to the bridge faster – the Jamestown police station is minutes from the toll plaza.

In the event that someone does jump from the Newport Bridge, there is a task force ready to respond. The group includes the Coast Guard, the state Department of Environmental Management and the Jamestown Fire Department.

“We need help from everybody around the state,” said Panichas. “This only works if we can keep the lines open and keep recruiting new volunteers.”

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