St. Paul's High Bridge: Suicide Hot Spot

Ever since the original High Bridge was built in 1889, it's been a magnet for people seeking to end their lives

Sylvia Johnson couldn't sleep. It was just after Labor Day weekend in 2005, and she'd been plagued by insomnia throughout the summer. The 32-year-old Inver Grove Heights resident usually managed to drift off around midnight, but within a couple of hours she'd be wide awake, her mind racing with anxiety.

Johnson's troubles had been percolating for months. She'd given birth to her first child, a son, in December. She went back to work three months later, with her husband staying home to take care of their baby. It didn't go well. Johnson was one of few female employees in the engineering office. She felt self-conscious taking breaks to pump breast milk. Her manager seemed to resent the fact that she'd taken maternity leave and often belittled her job performance. She felt powerless, threatened, in danger of being terminated. Even in the hours away from the office, she obsessed over the daily humiliations of the workplace.

Johnson also suspected that she was suffering from postpartum depression. The psychological phenomenon can cripple new mothers with anxiety, insomnia, exhaustion, and low self-esteem. She was terrified of being alone with her child. Her appetite disappeared. She spoke in a listless monotone. Johnson sought out books on postpartum depression, but her mind was too cluttered by unwelcome thoughts to process the information. She feared she might be losing her ability to read.

Jon Krause
The High Bridge was rebuilt in the mid-'80s after engineers determined that it wasn't structurally sound
Nick Vlcek
The High Bridge was rebuilt in the mid-'80s after engineers determined that it wasn't structurally sound

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WHERE TO GO FOR HELP

SAVE: This Bloomington-based nonprofit runs grief-support programs, a speaker's bureau, and continuing education programs for mental health professionals. Phone: 952.946.7998

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: This 24-hour, toll-free hotline is linked up with 120 crisis centers across the country. Its mission is to provide immediate help to anyone seeking mental health services. Phone: 800.273.8255

American Association of Suicidology: This national nonprofit group seeks to understand and prevent suicide. It provides services to suicide survivors, puts together conferences on mental health issues, and supports research into suicide prevention. Phone: 202.237.2280

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The prior day had run completely off the rails. An interview for a new engineering job went disastrously wrong, in Johnson's warped estimation. An appointment with a new therapist only caused more anxiety. The counselor had suggested that she read David Burns's The Feeling Good Handbook—a best seller that suggests coping mechanisms for people with mild mental health issues. In Johnson's eyes, it was like a doctor advising a patient with a broken neck to pop a couple of aspirin. When Johnson arrived home that evening, she quarreled with her husband about her dismal mental state. He couldn't understand why she didn't just pull herself together.

Now in the early morning hours of September 8, 2005, Johnson was desperate to end the cycle of despair. Her head raced obsessively with the same thoughts about work and motherhood and her own inadequacies. She contemplated where she might procure a handgun, but came up empty.

Finally, Johnson downed a shot of Grant's whiskey and headed out the door into an unseasonably balmy night. She was wearing one of her husband's oversized T-shirts, a pair of Teva sandals, and underwear. She climbed into her Saturn sedan and drove through the darkened streets to a familiar landmark, the High Bridge. She'd regularly driven across the span since childhood and remembered passing under it while boating on the Mississippi River. She loved the High Bridge.

Johnson's family never had much money while she was growing up. She'd been forced to share a bedroom with her mother as a teenager after her parents divorced. This humble upbringing had inspired Johnson to make something better of her life. She'd worked her way through an engineering degree from the University of Minnesota, purchased a home while still in her early twenties, and gotten married not long after. Barely five feet tall, with shoulder-length brown hair and freckles that belied her age, Johnson hardly looked the brooding type. On the surface, her life looked sublime. She never imagined that one day she'd seek to end it all by jumping off the High Bridge.

Johnson parked her car on Cherokee Avenue and walked out onto the imposing structure, which soars some 150 feet above the roiling Mississippi River waters. At 5 a.m., the bridge was deserted—the morning commute wouldn't start for a couple of hours yet. She could see stunning views of the city's downtown skyline, the Cathedral of St. Paul, and the Mississippi River.

Looking down into the water, all she could see was inky blackness. It was a strangely comforting abyss. She climbed up onto the two-foot railing and clung to a lamppost. For the first time in months, her mind was empty.

Then she let go.

 

"SYLVIA JOHNSON" IS A PSEUDONYM, but her story is very real—and depressingly common. Every year more than 800,000 people in the United States try to kill themselves. That translates into one suicide attempt every 39 seconds. Worldwide, more than a million people kill themselves annually.

By far the most common method of suicide in the U.S. is firearms, accounting for roughly half of all self-inflicted fatalities. Suffocation or hanging is the second-most frequent means by which people take their own lives. Women are three times more likely than men to attempt suicide, but males are much more likely to succeed, because of their preference for reliably lethal methods such as guns. This translates into men accounting for three-quarters of the country's self-inflicted deaths.

Bridge suicides are a miniscule fraction of the overall picture, representing less than 1 percent of annual fatalities, but they tend to have an outsized resonance in the public's consciousness. Bridge suicides by their nature are public events, often disrupting traffic and leaving behind grisly evidence. The most notorious example is the Golden Gate Bridge. Since the suspension bridge spanning San Francisco Bay opened to traffic in 1937, more than 1,200 people have leaped to their deaths from it. Another fatality is added to the tragic list roughly every two weeks. The structure's strange draw was even explored in the 2006 documentary The Bridge.

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