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

"You almost didn't hear it at much as feel it," recalls St. Paul City Council member Dave Thune, who represents the area. "I've never been in a war, but I can imagine that might be what it would be like to have shells dropping around you."

Original plans for the bridge's replacement called for a generic concrete structure. "It was just going to be a ribbon of concrete," recalls Betty Moran, who's been a community organizer with the West Seventh/Fort Road Federation for more than two decades. "They didn't even want to put sidewalks on the bridge."

But fervent neighborhood opposition to the bland blueprint eventually resulted in marked changes. Iron from the original structure was incorporated into the design. Stone walkways were built on each side of the two-lane roadway. The reconstructed High Bridge opened two years later.

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

The rebuilt span hasn't been able to shake the tragic legacy of its forbearer. In the last two decades, the High Bridge has once again proven to be a siren for thedepressed. Exact numbers on how many people have jumped off the structure over the years are difficult to come by, but St. Paul police were dispatched to the structure seven times in 2007 to investigate potential suicides. In three instances, the person succeeded.

Despite this tragic history, there's never been any organized effort to install an anti-suicide railing. Studies have repeatedly shown that such safeguards are effective in preventing suicides. The Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine, for example, was the site of 14 suicides between 1960 and 1983, no doubt due in part to its proximity to a state psychiatric hospital. After a safety fence was installed that year, the number of self-inflicted deaths dropped to zero for the next two decades. According to a 2006 report in the scientific journal Injury Prevention, "there was no evidence that suicidal individuals sought alternative sites for jumping."

Daniel Reidenberg, executive director of Suicide Awareness Voices of Education (SAVE), a suicide-prevention organization based in Bloomington, says he would support installing protective barriers on the High Bridge as well as any other area bridges. "They do prevent suicide," he says. "When someone is suffering from any mental illness and they're suicidal, it's a short amount of time frame when they're acutely suicidal. There's a lot of ambivalence that leads right up to the suicide."

SYLVIA JOHNSON WAS BRUISED nearly from head to toe. Mud was lodged deep under her nails. She didn't remember anything after leaping from the bridge.

An ambulance sped her across downtown to Regions Hospital. Because she had swum through frigid waters, her body temperature was just 90 degrees. She had a lacerated liver and a bruised kidney. But remarkably, she hadn't broken a single bone.

"They didn't know what to think of me," says Johnson. "Any time someone had done this in the past, they were dealing with someone who was a quadriplegic for life. You don't just walk away from that."

When Johnson first regained her senses at Regions Hospital, she was mortified. What would her family think? How would she explain this to friends and colleagues? Would she lose her job?

But that sense of humiliation was soon overwhelmed by physical agony.

"When I was conscious there was pain, extreme pain," she says. "It wasn't the kind of acute pain where you burn your hand and you pull away. It was a constant, dull, ever-present pain. It hurt to breathe."

Johnson spent roughly a week in intensive care, where doctors performed arthroscopic surgery to repair her liver. She was fed pain medicine intravenously to dull the ache.

On the mend, she was transferred to the hospital's 10th-floor psych ward. Though her body was healing, her mind was still suspect. She wasn't allowed to keep her iPod for fear she'd hang herself with the ear buds' cord. Her young son wasn't permitted to visit. She was put on antidepressants and started meeting with a psychiatrist.

Johnson finally returned home in early October. The bruises on her body took two months to fade. Even after they had disappeared, every sneeze and cough brought shockwaves of pain.

The depression that had sent her plunging off the bridge was even slower to dissipate. She hardly ate. She had no sense of humor. She took sedatives to fall asleep at night. She couldn't concentrate long enough to watch a movie or read a book.

"I seriously would get up in the morning and I was so excited when evening would start to fall and I knew that pretty soon I could take my meds and go to sleep and that would put me out of my misery," she says. "It was painful to be conscious."

Later that month, Johnson started an outpatient treatment program at Hennepin County Medical Center for survivors of traumatic events. One woman in the group had lost a daughter due to blood loss during childbirth. Another man had been attacked and stabbed by people he'd invited into his home.

The next month Johnson returned to work. Colleagues were told she'd been in a car accident. She dreaded returning to the toxic workplace that she partially blamed for her mental breakdown. But luckily she didn't have to stay there long. By the end of the year she had secured a new engineering job in downtown St. Paul, where she continues to work to this day.

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