It’s an unpleasant subject, but members of a local coalition says talking about suicide could save a life. And hopefully bringing signs to the Tacoma Narrows bridges could save a few more.
Bob Anderson, a member of the Gig Harbor Suicide Prevention Coalition and the local Rotary Club, presented the idea to place signs on the bridge with the Suicide Hotline’s phone number as a last chance way to reach out to those considering jumping.
Anderson was visiting Portland when he saw a similar sign on one of its bridges.
“I thought it was just a great idea,” he said. “I wondered why we didn’t have any on our bridge.”
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The signs in Oregon are blue and reach out to those considering committing suicide by offering help at the last moment.
“Anyone with suicidal thoughts and urges (is) looking for a way to escape them,” Pierce County Council member Derek Young said. “This can be a way to help those looking for help. I was surprised we haven't already done something like this.”
Young is bridging a connection between the coalition and the Washington State Department of Transportation to find a way to place the signs on the bridge.
“From who I’ve talked to, this is not the first time this idea has been brought to WSDOT,” Young said. “We are hoping to hear from them soon about what avenues we can take.”
For Anderson, preventing suicide in Gig Harbor and on the Key Peninsula is a personal mission. Anderson lost his son, Rob, almost 20 years ago to suicide.
THE SUICIDE RATES
Suicide on the Key Peninsula and in Gig Harbor is a taboo issue that members of the coalition want to shed light on, in hopes of lowering the statistics.
“About 10 years ago we had a high rate of suicides compared to the rest of the county,” Anderson said. “We had a lot of issues with teenagers feeling suicidal.”
According to the Washington State Department of Health, from 2010 to 2014, Pierce County had a suicide death rate average higher than the state as a whole, with a rate of 15 suicide-related deaths per 100,000 residents, and Pierce County first responders still see many calls to the Tacoma Narrows bridges for suicides or suicide attempts.
“I think last year we had a police officer who literally caught the person just in time,” Young said. “He was actually holding on to him from the side of the bridge.”
According to the department of health, many environmental factors can lead people to consider suicide:
▪ Age and gender, with males in the state accounting for 77 percent of suicide deaths and men between the ages of 45 and 65 having a higher rate of success with suicide attempts.
▪ Poverty and unemployment are linked with higher levels of suicidal thoughts. In Washington, areas where 10 percent of the population live in poverty have a 25 percent higher rate of suicide.
▪ Native Americans in the state have the highest rate of suicide, and the second highest rate is among white residents.
▪ Education also affects suicide rates. Areas where 25 percent or less of residents age 25 and up have a college education saw an increase in suicides by 35 percent.
“There is a large income gap on the Key Peninsula and in our school district,” Kathy Weymiller, a member of the coalition and spokesperson for the Peninsula School District said. “The school district was stuck in a pattern of on average losing one student a year to suicide.”
Weymiller said the coalition is hoping to get six signs all together. Some will be placed on the bridge if approved by the Washington State Department of Transportation, others will be placed around the peninsula in what she cites as “hot spots.”
“We have some parks where there have been a number of incidents,” she said.
THE COALITION AND ITS WORK
The Gig Harbor Suicide Prevention Coalition was created in 2012 as a response to the high number of students in the Peninsula School District contemplating or attempting to commit suicide. Anderson and Weymiller both joined in 2013.
“The coalition’s focus is to raise awareness about suicide, how to respond to it and how to prevent it,” Anderson said.
The coalition was trained by a suicide prevention group based in Canada. Weymiller said even though the coalition is not strictly a PSD organization, it has strong ties with the district because it helps local students and families who are dealing with the affects of suicide. The coalition meets regularly to discuss projects and training.
The group hosts public courses called safeTALK, where parents and community members can meet and discusses the causes of suicides, the rate of suicide in the community and how to ask the hard questions when preventing suicide.
“If someone has a friend or family who they are worried about they need to be able to ask ‘Have you had suicidal thoughts?’” Anderson said.
“We don’t want to make everyone think they are pseudo-psychologists,” Weymiller said. “But we want to be able to give the resources to those to help their friends who may need counseling.”
Weymiller said since the coalition started, even though there is no recent data on local suicide trends, she has seen anecdotal proof that the coalition is making a positive impact on the community.
“There is just a tremendous amount of stress for students today,” Weymiller said. “They just are filled with angst, having to navigate school, work, family and social media. I am proud to be with a community that can sit and talk about these issues. We also provide resources for students, teachers and counselors so they can talk about it too.
“We don’t want to romanticize but normalize the issue.”
Last September the coalition held a large public event for National Suicide Prevention Day. The event included spoken-word performances and artwork displays from the local youth and young adults about their own struggles with suicide.
WORKING ON THE SIGNS
Besides its regular meetings and event planning, the coalition, in partnership with the local Rotary Club, is hoping to raise funds for the signs and place them in local areas and on the bridge sooner than later.
“I don’t see the signs costing too much,” Young said. “I know the county has its own sign-making facility. Once we get the green light from WSDOT we can see where to go next.”
Although the signs are a hit with the coalition and local groups, some opposition is to be expected. The idea that signs regarding suicide hotlines are placed on bridges make some residents wonder if it will almost have the opposite effect, by triggering people to have suicidal thoughts.
Anderson said the data his group has collected shows that signs do not have a negative effect on those who are considering suicide.
“To me, it’s a last chance to show someone that others care,” Anderson said. “It reaches out and gives help by providing a number for them to call to seek counseling.”