St. Paul’s iconic High Bridge spans 160 feet above the majestic Mississippi River. Those traveling across the bridge recently may have noticed painted phone numbers there. It’s part of an effort to deter suicides at the bridge.
Ideas implemented at the High Bridge could be used on other Minnesota bridge structures in the future. More than 60 neighborhood residents gathered for a forum at St. Paul’s Bad Weather Brewing Company January 6, just blocks from the bridge. The meeting was focused on suicide prevention, mental health awareness and media coverage of an issue that heavily impacts river neighbors and the larger community. Those present discussed long-term bridge design issues and short-term prevention measures, as well as how to talk as a community about a sensitive issue.
“There’s a lot of community members who have shown interest and passion about this topic and groups have organized other efforts,” said area resident Jolene Olsen. She and Leah Driscoll were among the first community residents to work on the issue. “There’s a lot of interest in this topic so we are not the only ones making effort to do something on the bridge.”
After a suicide last year, someone painted suicide prevention hotline numbers on the bridge. The Minnesota Department of Transportation (MnDOT) has agreed to leave the phone numbers while other prevention and public education methods are explored.
Olson and Driscoll first asked MnDOT officials in 2015 if suicide prevention could be part of plans to redeck the bridge in 2018. “It seemed that suicide wasn’t even on their radar as far as integrating that into part of the redecking project,” said Driscoll.
The meeting brought the Minnesota Department of Health and MnDOT into the same room, and has opened communication not just focused on the High Bridge, but on infrastructure projects across the state. “It’s exciting to see that one conversation can lead to system changes,” Driscoll said.
One emphasis is ways to help people in crisis. Melissa Heinen of the Minnesota Department of Health emphasized that suicide is avoidable, with treatment and access to resources as a proven means. “None of us can do all,” she said, but “we all can do little pieces.”
Other speakers included the St. Paul Police Department crisis unit and the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) Minnesota. Speakers outlined resources for treatment and discussion of mental health issues.
Discussion at the meeting also focused both on engineering and design elements to minimize danger. One focus was the bridge’s current physical state. It’s in need of a paint job, at minimum. Walkways and bicycle lanes were seemingly an afterthought to automobile traffic in its current design. Making it more accommodating, people said, would brighten the mood and increase foot and bike traffic.
Making contact with a depressed subject is an important step, said Commander Mary Nash, crisis negotiator for the St. Paul Police Department. More walkers and bikers could provide that contact. “You can snap somebody out of it with that positive interaction,” Nash said, including a simple “How are you doing today?”
The meeting drew a wide range of other ideas focused on prevention and changing how the bridge is perceived. “Suicide prevention has to come at all angles and approaches,” Driscoll said. Ideas included community celebrations such as art crawls and greater access to counseling at youth centers. Specific ideas included forming regular walking groups along the bridge, placing Little Free Libraries with mental health literature on or near the bridge and adding artwork. Placing permanent Viewmasters to lighten the mood joined more pragmatic upgrades such as rail barriers.
Overall consensus suggested removing the ribbons from the bridge in fear of contagion and rekindling traumatic memories in the community, as well as working to change the narrative of the bridge itself, focusing on its positive effect on the neighborhood.
Heinen said the community should “own” the bridge and help tell a different story around. Another idea is to reconsider reactions to suicide. Memorial ribbons may be seen as a sign of hope, but they could also contribute to the problem. Suicide by jumping is not common, said Heinen. Only about 2 percent of suicides happen that way.