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The Mysteries of the Suicide Tourist

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The George Washington Bridge sees ten suicides a year.  

Overall, the NYAM researchers found, nearly 80 percent of the nonresident suicides in Manhattan were committed by men. Nearly two-thirds were committed by whites. Almost 30 percent were committed by individuals between the ages of 25 and 34. Each had his own constellation of problems and motives, of course. But in the end, they shared a common trait: They all chose New York as the place to end their lives. The simple and troubling question, of course, is Why?

'I ask myself that every day,” Judith says when we first speak. (Judith and Stephen are not their real names. Judith is still deeply pained by her son’s death and asked not to have their names or hometowns revealed.) In most cases, multiple factors are at play, experts say. The glamour of New York can play a role. Just as the city’s glittering, outsize reputation attracts many people for happy reasons, it attracts others for tragic ones. People who are suicidal may want to die in a way that gets them attention they felt they never got when they were alive, says Herbert Hendin, a New York–based psychiatrist and the president of Suicide Prevention International. By this logic, New York can be the perfect stage. Anonymity can also play a part. People who are suicidal often feel isolated and alone. The city can reflect back or exacerbate those feelings, making it seem like a suitable setting for one’s final act, says David Rosen, a Texas A&M psychology professor who has written extensively on depression and suicide. Attempting to protect friends and family can lead people to New York as well. “Frequently, people who are considering suicide want to make sure that their death is, relatively speaking, as easy as possible on their loved ones,” says Thomas Joiner, a psychology professor at Florida State University and the author of Why People Die by Suicide. There’s an idea that going somewhere far away will spare people the trauma of discovery and keep them from having to associate a local site with the person’s death. “People who are doing this are trying to say to their family that it’s not your fault,” says Hendin.

New York has a certain grim, practical allure, as well. The roots of suicide are vast and complex, but in the end, “the suicidal person wants access to lethal means,” says John Draper, project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The ideal method, Draper says, is “what appears to the individual to be the most attractive and painless way.” People who live around a lot of guns, for instance, have been found to be disproportionately inclined to shoot themselves. Hendin worked in parts of Norway where suicide by drowning was more frequent than he’d seen elsewhere. More recently, he’s been overseeing work being done in rural areas of China, where people often swallow agricultural pesticides.

Through suicidal eyes, the New York skyline can appear to be “a lot of opportunities to die from heights.”

New York, with all of its tall buildings and bridges, makes a perversely attractive place to kill oneself. Through suicidal eyes, the skyline can appear to be “a lot of opportunities to die from heights,” says Gary Spielmann, the former director of suicide prevention for the New York State Office of Mental Health. “A lot of windows and doors and balconies that can easily be negotiated by a jumper.” And jumping, says Kay Redfield Jamison, a Johns Hopkins psychiatry professor and the author of An Unquiet Mind, has the twisted appeal of being “practical, final, and irrevocable.” It can also seem dramatic. Gary Gorman, a retired policeman who was assigned to the NYPD’s Emergency Service Unit, which responds to suicide calls, says that some people who jump from bridges or buildings may want people to look up at them, to know about them, to notice them in death in a way they hadn’t been noticed in life. According to the NYAM study, nonresidents who kill themselves in Manhattan are less likely to have done so by methods commonly used in the home, such as overdosing or hanging, and are 30 percent more likely to have died from a long fall. They’re also almost three times as likely to have died by drowning and twice as likely to have died after being hit by a train or other moving object, a function of New York’s subways and waterways. The two neighborhoods where the most nonresidents kill themselves are midtown, with its dense concentration of tall buildings and hotels, and the Washington Heights area, home to the George Washington Bridge.

Certain sites sometimes become suicide “hot spots.” The world’s most famous hot spot is perhaps the Golden Gate Bridge, where roughly 1,300 people have died since the bridge was completed, in 1937. The attraction is often less romantic than utilitarian. Consciously or otherwise, experts say, people internalize a notion: It’s been done there before, so it can be done again. According to Kevin Hines, who survived a jump from the Golden Gate in 2000, the survivors he’s met all “decided they were going to go to this place, this icon, because they know they can die there.” Experts say hot spots can convince people that they are somehow less alone, even if only for an instant. That jumping from a place where others have jumped gives them a sense of connection. There’s also a simple copycat component. Suicide, Hendin notes, can become a kind of contagion.


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