The Mysteries of the Suicide Tourist

Photo: Sean Perry

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.

The George Washington Bridge sees ten suicides a year.Photo: Sean Perry

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.

Barriers have been erected at the Empire State Building.Photo: Sean Perry

In New York, some 30 people have jumped from the Empire State Building since it opened, in 1931. The George Washington Bridge sees some ten suicides per year. In 2002 and 2003, years in which Stephen stayed at the Marriott Marquis, three people jumped to their deaths at the hotel, two of whom lived outside New York. In 2003 and 2004, five New York University students jumped to their deaths from a handful of sites on and off campus.

On the morning of February 15, 1997, John and Marilyn Barrachina woke up at home with plans to attend a wedding later in the day. Despite the fact that they themselves were having marital problems, Marilyn wished her husband a happy 59th birthday. “Maybe I’ll just kill myself,” John responded. He was being dramatic, she thought, self-pitying. But when it came time to go to the wedding, John was missing. Marilyn didn’t imagine anything too awful could have happened, despite John’s earlier comment. So she, John Jr., and her daughter-in-law went to the wedding, telling those who asked that John was sick. They returned home to find policemen and a priest waiting at the house. They said that at around ten o’clock that morning, John had driven roughly ten miles to the George Washington Bridge, crossed it into Manhattan, then turned right around and started back over. On the second pass, he stopped his car, got out, and jumped. There was no hesitation, a witness said. He left no note.

Before the day of his 59th birthday, John Barrachina had never tried to kill himself. He had no history of depression. He had never talked or joked about suicide, says Marilyn. If the family was going into the city, John Jr. says, they took the Lincoln Tunnel. John’s marital problems had quickly sent him into a deep depression. But why New York? Why the George Washington Bridge? “Living in the New York area,” says John Jr., “the George Washington Bridge is an icon. And it’s kind of an expression. You know—I’ll jump off the George Washington Bridge.” Marilyn offers this explanation: “I think that was just the easy way for him to do it,” she says.

After Stephen died, Judith discovered he’d stopped seeing his psychiatrist months earlier, had gone off his medications, and had been emptying out his room for weeks, giving away clothes, books, and even sheets and pillowcases (he kept the receipts from the Salvation Army). His suicide note mentioned relationship difficulties and laments about structural problems with his home. Judith knows, rationally, that Stephen’s depression is to blame for his death, but she can’t say, ultimately, why her son killed himself. Nor has she settled on a single answer to why Stephen chose New York or the Marriott. Because of the height, she guesses one moment. Because it was far from home, she offers at another. Judith says Stephen never mentioned the other suicides at the Marriott. But it seems possible that he would have known about them. As his depression deepened, she says, he probably worked out a script. Stephen was very thorough, Judith says, very exacting. “He probably researched it himself.”

New York will always have its glamour and anonymity, its tall buildings and bridges. And the city can’t screen visitors to determine who’s suicidal and who isn’t. To some extent, so-called suicide tourism is apt to be a permanent part of our culture, a grim, unwanted side effect of some of the very things that make the city so appealing. That said, experts say there’s a surprisingly simple and effective way to combat the problem: Make suicide harder to carry out, site by site, and make it easier for people to get help. The Empire State Building has a high, inwardly curved fence encircling the observation deck and guards who keep watch, which makes jumping extremely difficult. No one has died by jumping at the Marriott Marquis since Stephen took his own life. During renovations of the hotel last year, Marriott erected metal grillwork that impedes access to the atrium. After NYU’s rash of suicides, the university expanded counseling and outreach programs, restricted access to certain dormitory balconies, and erected Plexiglas barriers in the atrium of the school’s library, where a student had killed himself.

The George Washington Bridge, on the other hand, is heavily patrolled and monitored, and call boxes connect with Port Authority police. But none of that changes the fact that the barriers are low and relatively easy to scale. “Whatever security they have, it’s not good enough,” says John Barrachina Jr. “I can tell you from experience.” Kevin Hines has similar feelings about the Golden Gate Bridge. The failure to build higher railings at a place where some nineteen people kill themselves each year is, he says, “maddening, amoral, and disgusting.” Suicide-prevention experts also stress the importance of encouraging people who may be depressed to seek counseling. They also say it’s critical to promote awareness of hotlines like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-talk).

Judith is doing her own part. She hopes that sharing Stephen’s story might help prevent future suicides, and having recently retired from her job, she’s planning to volunteer at a suicide-prevention foundation.

Judith remains devastated by Stephen’s death. She can say his name now without crying, she says, but she still can’t read more than a few pages of his journals, and she hasn’t been back to New York since her son died. Of his last night here, she says, “I hope he had the time of his life.” Her voice is both anguished and defiant. “I hope he went all around Manhattan and saw a great play and heard music that he loved.”

The Mysteries of the Suicide Tourist