The long wait for prevention barriers on St. Paul's Suicide Bridge

Even a sign like this could be controversial when no one's allowed to talk about suicide.

Even a sign like this could be controversial when no one's allowed to talk about suicide.

On Friday evening, Sandi Williams was jogging on the High Bridge in St. Paul when she saw a young woman kick off her shoes and climb over the railing. Something clicked in Williams' head, and she sprinted to grab the woman by the hand, begging her not to jump.

Last month, another Good Samaritan, Jason Englund, caught sight of a man at the edge of the bridge and talked him down.

People in St. Paul have known about the High Bridge’s reputation for attracting would-be jumpers. They watch out for strangers who falter, alone on the bridge, who look depressed.

St. Paul Police have recorded 91 attempted and completed suicides at the High Bridge from January 2000 to November 2015, and yet to this day there are no physical barriers to prevent people from taking an impulsive leap. No nets. No emergency telephone.

Part of the holdup is that mental health organizations, politicians, and governmental entities like the Minnesota Departments of Health and Transportation are terrified of talking about “suicide hotspots.” They’re afraid that drawing attention to a specific place will create copycats. The consequence is that when suicides aren’t talked about, it’s hard to mobilize a public swell of support for preventative changes.

St. Paul resident Dana Bogema was walking near the High Bridge on July 27, 2015 – a date she’s committed to memory – when she saw a man climb to the edge of the bridge and disappear off the side. She was too far away to stop him.

After she got home, she started a petition to ask the Department of Transportation to stencil in some suicide hotline numbers, to build a higher railing, or at least paint some inspirational quotes on the ground to remind people in crisis that their lives have significance.

“The Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building have cages around them so you can’t jump off them,” Bogema says. “There, it would be very difficult, and this bridge is just too easy to climb up and jump over.”

The petition now has nearly 3,000 signatures, but the Department of Transportation hasn’t done anything to protect the bridge yet. Representatives have met with the Smith Bridge (another name for the High Bridge) Community Forum to talk about ideas, but it's mostly residents carrying the torch. There’s a group of people who walk the bridge every first Thursday of the month. Bad Weather Brewing, at the base of the bridge, is trying to build some community gardens.

“There are people who are doers and there are people who are talkers,” Bogema says. “We don’t have enough doers in the government. That’s all I gotta say.”

Last August, a group gathered at the High Bridge to commemorate the lives lost there. Strangers hung ribbons inscribed with hopeful messages. Strangers hugged and wept. Everyone, it seemed, knew someone who had attempted or completed suicide.

Felicia Zubulake, a longtime West Side resident, organized the memorial on the fly after a St. Paul high school student committed suicide there. It was the second time she'd been personally affected. The brother of a friend jumped back in the 1980s. Nothing's changed since then. 

"I figured there had to be something we could do to get somebody to listen to us, to put something there to try and prevent it," Zubulake says. "I just think the more publicity it gets, I do see that people are being more vigilant, they’re paying more attention as they might see somebody who looks like they’re distressed."

She would like to see a new pedestrian bridge constructed underneath the High Bridge, or nets stretched underneath. But if public funds are limited, she wants messages of kindness and mindfulness installed, just to make people stop and think, and buy some time for another human being to come by and reach out. 

"I would like to see everybody come together and do something like this once a year like we did last year," Zubulake says. "It’s healing for the community, and it’s helpful for people that have been affected by it. At least it would be helpful for people to see others come out and say, 'You don’t have to do that. We’re here to support you.'"