One of many messages inscribed onto the railing of the Natchez Trace Bridge/ Photo by Brooke Wanser.
By BROOKE WANSER
WARNING: This article contains and discusses information about suicide.
This is the final story in a series of four stories on suicides in Williamson County from the Natchez Trace Bridge.
Since suicides began occurring from the Natchez Trace Bridge in 2000, local officials have struggled with how to address the problem.
Scott Ridgway, the executive director of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network, said he wasn’t surprised by the number of suicides from the bridge, recorded by local officials as 30.
“What really upsets me about it is it took us close to a year just to get those two signs put up on both sides,” he said, referring to the signs at each end of the bridge, providing access to the National Suicide Hotline phone number. “It seems like it was a long, drawn out process.”
Natchez Trace Parkway Chief Ranger Sarah Davis said the park has to comply with federal standards when approving any type of addition to the land, going through the National Environment Policy Act.
“The federal government is bound by a lot of regulations that a state and local landowner doesn’t have to go through,” she said. “The bridge is itself a national, cultural resource.”
However, Davis said she thinks they have come up with another solution. The park is working on getting an emergency call box installed, a difficult feat because of the limited wireless capabilities in the area.
“We’re taking steps to see what helps,” she said.
Sheriff Long said he believes netting or fencing of some type might be a solution to a safer environment on the bridge.
“On top of it, where the rails are, there ought to be some netting or something attached to the rails coming inward to where they can’t climb up and get over,” he said.
Long said he understood the argument that people might choose somewhere else to take their own life, “but if we can prevent one, then it’s worth the netting, as far as I’m concerned.”
He acknowledged the hurdles: “It’s a big deal, getting something done inside a park.”
Mary Risser, the Natchez Trace Park Superintendent, recognized the suicides, but said the problem is not confined to the bridge.
Risser, who has been with the National Park Service for 36 years, said she has been part of a park task force to combat suicide since the summer of 2016.
“It’s kind of ironic, but there are certain parks in the National Parks system that have the reputation of drawing people who want to end their lives,” she noted.
This is a phenomenon which has been documented.
“I think mostly it’s the isolation of it,” Dr. Chang, a psychiatrist who has practiced in Williamson County since 2000, said. “Those are the real dangerous suicidal attempts. Those are the ones who have put a lot of thought into it.”
Risser said one of the strategies her agency has been using over the past few years is to avoid press releases when a suicide occurs. “Then we have copycats,” she said.
Being on the National Register of Historic Places, Risser said, precludes the park from taking steps that would detract from the aesthetic value of the bridge.
Risser said implementing netting, like what is being installed at the Golden Gate Bridge, is not feasible for the Natchez Trace Bridge.
“That’s a very different situation with a group that has lots of money and rangers,” she said.
Ridgway, though, agrees with Long.
“I don’t see why they couldn’t spend money and put a net,” like at the Golden Gate Bridge, he said.
Ridgway argued that a net for safety at the Natchez Trace Bridge wouldn’t be anywhere near the cost of the Golden Gate Bridge’s safety net, which is currently being built.
“When we look at loss of life costs, we’re talking about apples and oranges,” he insisted.
Risser said installing netting would not only be costly, but would still be dangerous and involve a technical team to respond to jumpers.
“You think of something you’re going to jump off and bounce,” she said, “but it would act more like a cheese grater if someone fell on them.”
Though Davis said the cellular phone option will likely be installed within the next six months, Risser is aware of the limitations of any physical solution.
Within the National Park Service, “we are trying to make it more acceptable to talk about mental illness and emotional well-being,” she said. “We want to figure out what kind of support we can give to our employees so they aren’t feeling so overwhelmed.”
She admits the issue is challenging, and one that has long frustrated her throughout her career within the system.
“If it were easy, the answer is, we would have done it by now,” she said.
Steve Allbrooks is the senior advisor in Franklin for U.S. Congressman Marsha Blackburn, who represents Tennessee’s 7th District.
Allbrooks said he had attended a 2016 meeting with community leaders, including Sheriff Long and Superintendent Risser, about the issue.
Blackburn’s office released the following statement on suicides at the bridge:
Suicide is a tragic issue. Congressman Blackburn has been concerned for years about the connection between suicide and mental illness. In August 2016, she arranged for a meeting between representatives of the National Park Service and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office to discuss safety precautions as a means to reduce suicides from the bridge. During her time in Congress, Congressman Blackburn has looked at how addressing mental illness plays a key role in suicide prevention. For this reason, among others, she was determined to do everything she could to help pass the landmark 21st Century Cures legislation, which included the Helping Families in Mental Health Crisis Act (H.R. 2646). She and her staff have also received several briefings from the command team at Ft. Campbell about PTSD as a factor in veteran suicide rates – which often stems from numerous deployments. Congressman Blackburn has been, and remains, committed to enhancing awareness of suicide, its risk factors, and how we can prevent more tragic loss of life going forward.
Ridgway said the issue comes back to the stigma of mental illness.
“I guarantee you if somebody in a minivan had broke the barrier and killed a family, they would spend all the money in the world to repair that bridge,” he said. “If someone jumps off, they’re not going to. It goes back to, ‘well, that person has a mental illness.’”
Like Ridgway, Risser believes mental illness is an issue needs to be spoken about and de-stigmatized.
“It’s a much bigger issue than just the parkway or Williamson County; it’s something that’s pretty widespread,” she said.
At the bridge, the railing across the edges has become a blackboard for the souls who have traversed it.
“Aaron+Charlotte,” “Michele+Don,” and countless other inscriptions are scrawled into the metal, along with other more vulgar sentiments.
A few, either knowing or sensing the gravity of the place, have left messages of hope. But one engraving stands out among a sea of thoughts.
In thin, small letters: “Don’t give them the satisfaction.”
Warning signs of suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
What to do:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
A free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.