Coalition targets suicide with sign

New London - A suicide prevention sign will be erected at the entrance to the pedestrian walkway over the Gold Star Memorial Bridge over the Thames River, thanks to a Connecticut College initiative.

"We've given the green light. We're just waiting for Connecticut College to supply the sign," Tim Hanser, the city's public works director, said Wednesday.

City public works crews will install the sign on city-owned property on Bailey Circle, he said.

Once installed, the sign will be the only suicide prevention sign at a Connecticut state bridge, according to state Department of Transportation spokesman Judd Everhart. Several other bridges across the country, however, have suicide prevention signs, including the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, the Colorado Street Bridge in Pasadena, Calif., and the Aurora Bridge in Seattle. Other bridges, such as the Tappan Zee Bridge over the Hudson River, have emergency call boxes that connect to a suicide prevention hotline. Signs with hotline numbers are also posted on the Bourne and Sagamore bridges leading to Cape Cod as well as the Newport Pell and Jamestown-Verrazano bridges in Rhode Island.

Janet Spoltore, director of student counseling services at Conn, said the idea came out of the Connecticut College Campus Community Coalition, a group of local health, social service, community and college representatives, and is part of a series of actions at the college to promote mental health among students.

As part of that effort, college staff identified "risk settings" for those contemplating suicide, and how those risks could be reduced. She said no Conn student has attempted suicide on the Gold Star, although there was one suicide of a 33-year-old local resident there in 2010, and there were rescues of would-be suicide victims from the bridge in 2009 and 2010. In 2011, a man committed suicide by jumping off the nearby Amtrak railroad bridge over the Thames River.

The sign will read "You are not alone," and will include the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, (800) 273-8255, Spoltore said. The college also plans to erect the signs on campus on either side of the pedestrian bridge over Route 32, she said. The signs would be installed sometime next month, she said.

The college also has contacted Ledge Light Health District, the public health agency for New London, Groton, Ledyard, East Lyme and Waterford, about having suicide prevention signs installed on the Groton side of the bridge, Spoltore said.

The effectiveness of suicide prevention signs at bridges is unknown, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research at the American Federation for Suicide Prevention. There is ample evidence, however, that barriers such as barbed wire fencing, monitoring bridges with cameras and training for emergency personnel in how to deal with those threatening suicide are effective means of preventing suicide, she said.

She suggested that the college test the wording of the message on the signs it plans to install with focus groups comprised of those who have contemplated suicide.

"I wouldn't want to put up a sign without checking the message," she said. "But I do want to commend the group for wanting to be proactive about finding ways to prevent suicide."

The key element in successful attempts to dissuade someone from committing suicide is making a personal connection "that can help the person come back," she said. She also advocated initiatives to raise awareness about the factors that can lead to suicidal behaviors, such as depression, anxiety and drug and alcohol abuse.

"We also need to destigmatize mental health care, so that people will seek treatment and not feel stigmatized and embarrassed," she said.

While bridge suicides can attract widespread attention because they are done in a public setting, guns are the most common means of committing suicide, Harkavy-Friedman said, accounting for 51 percent of all suicides.

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