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The Mysteries of the Suicide Tourist

Why the same things that attract millions of happy visitors to New York—the glamour, the skyline, the anonymity—also draw people from around the world to kill themselves here.

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Stephen was no stranger to New York. He’d been to the city as a boy, and regularly came here for work now that he was in his twenties. A consultant, he’d take the train from his hometown several hours south of the city, stay from Monday to Friday, then return on the weekends. He loved New York, his mother, Judith, says. The energy, the people, figuring out the streets and subways. He often stayed at the Marriott Marquis in Times Square.

As a teenager, Stephen had been prone to mood swings, Judith says, and after college he was given a diagnosis of clinical depression. He’d cut his wrists once, badly enough to be taken to the hospital. He’d begun taking medication and seeing a psychiatrist, but the doctor determined that Stephen hadn’t really wanted to kill himself—his cuts weren’t very deep. He eventually told Stephen’s parents that he was no longer a serious suicide risk.

Recently, Stephen seemed to be doing well. He earned good money and got solid evaluations at work. He owned a house, made investments, talked about his future. He dated and traveled to Fiji and Sri Lanka to build homes for Habitat for Humanity. He was still prone to bouts of depression, but “my coping skills are so much better now,” he told Judith.

On this rainy summer Friday, Stephen met Judith for lunch not far from where he’d grown up. Judith had been looking forward to their get-together, but she could see right away that Stephen was unnerved. “When one thing went wrong, it could mount up inside him,” Judith says. She tried to comfort him, and offered to take the afternoon off to help him. But Stephen insisted he was okay, and that he had things to do. Judith went back to work. Stephen did not. Instead, he went to the train station, bought a ticket to New York, and checked in to the Marriott Marquis. At around 1 a.m., he wrote a letter on his laptop, found a place to print it out, and placed it on the desk in his room. Shortly before 4 a.m., he left his room, jumped from the 45th floor into the hotel’s soaring internal atrium, and landed in the eighth-floor lobby. He died instantly. Judith had left him a message earlier that night. He never called back.

In a sense, New York City is unremarkable when it comes to suicide. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 32,637 people died by suicide in the United States in 2005, the most recent year for which figures exist. It’s the third leading cause of death for Americans ages 15 to 24, the fourth leading cause for Americans 18 to 65. New York State had the country’s third-lowest per capita suicide rate in 2005 (6.2 per 100,000); only New Jersey (6.1) and Washington, D.C., (6) had lower rates. (Montana tops the list, with a rate of 22, followed by several other western states.) Between 1990 and 2004, suicide rates in cities such as Miami, Las Vegas, Sacramento, and Pittsburgh dwarfed New York’s, according to a report called “Big Cities Health Inventory 2007” from the National Association of County and City Health Officials. Of the cities included, only Boston, Baltimore, and Washington ranked lower in 2004. Within the city, Manhattan had a rate of 7.6 suicides per 100,000 people in 2005, higher than the other boroughs (Brooklyn had the fewest, at 4.64), but lower than many upstate regions.

Recently, however, researchers stumbled on a striking fact about suicides in New York: A surprising number of people who kill themselves in the city come here from out of town, and many appear to come expressly to take their own lives. In a report published last fall called “Suicide Tourism in Manhattan, New York City, 1990–2004,” researchers at the New York Academy of Medicine and Weill Cornell Medical College found that of the 7,634 people who committed suicide in New York City between 1990 and 2004, 407 of them, or 5.3 percent, were nonresidents. More strikingly, nonresidents accounted for 274, or 10.8 percent, of the 2,272 suicides in Manhattan during that time (the numbers did not include college students, who were considered residents for the purposes of the study). The researchers didn’t look at comparable data from other cities, but, says the study’s lead author, Charles Gross, “One in ten people that commit suicide in Manhattan don’t live here. That’s a big chunk.”

The New York City chief medical examiner’s office won’t release the files it allowed the NYAM researchers to review. But an informal survey of suicides in New York over the past twenty years reveals a bleak tapestry of out-of-towners who took their own lives. There was John Barrachina, a civil servant from Lodi, New Jersey, who, in 1997, woke up on the morning of his 59th birthday, drove onto the George Washington Bridge, parked his car, and jumped. There was Shawn Gibson, from Michigan by way of Florida, who came to New York in November 2004, at age 21, and leaped off the Empire State Building. That same year, Andrew Veal, 25, drove from Georgia to New York City, then slipped inside the ground-zero reconstruction site and shot himself. There was a man who spent his last moments filling out a job application in an office on a high floor. There was the 51-year-old cabbie from Poughkeepsie, a fortysomething from the Rockies, a man from Mexico City, and another from Spain. A native Utahan leaped off the George Washington Bridge in 1992, months after policemen talked him down off the same expanse.


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