What the Nets Say

Good news!

Like a California quake, the ground just moved under the suicide prevention movement.

The Golden Gate Bridge is going to get anti-suicide nets.

Some of us had given up on this decades-old recommendation. The vote to build the nets just goes to show that when it comes to preventing suicide, pessimism is a failed strategy, and persistence is a successful one.

On the Richter scale of social change, I put this shock at 7.5, maybe 8. The vote triggered a variety of public reactions: relief, joy, disbelief, bewilderment, and anger.

Here’s one in a letter-to-the-editor in my local paper:

“As I watched the news, I witnessed the most bizarre thing I’ve ever seen. San Francisco government approved spending $77 million to install nets on the Golden Gate Bridge to catch suicide jumpers. There are hundreds of other bridges and freeway overpasses, and on and on.

What is wrong with society? Giving the poor souls that decide to end their lives a $77 million net is just bizarre. Do we as an incredibly evolved race on this planet not see how many lives could be saved with $77 million for all the starving and ill children in Africa and other war-torn nations that die every day?”

The author goes on to state, “I pray one day we will actually understand what real evolution is, and it’s not putting up nets for the mentally ill.”

As something of an evolutionary psychologist myself, and after studying human beings for roughly 60 years, I’m pretty sure of two things: 1) some of us are less “incredibly evolved” than others, and 2) evolution produced the very thing that makes humans different from other species, namely, the capacity for empathy.

The author appears to have empathy for starving children in Africa – who doesn’t – but not for his neighbor. Or maybe he lacks empathy for suicidal people because it is simpler to disdain them than to understand them. Unburdened by thought or empathy, prejudice is fast and easy, otherwise it would not be such a popular occupation for we homo sapiens.

Question: Do the terms “jumpers” and “mentally ill” depersonalize the real people who die jumping from the Golden Gate? Do these “classifying terms” stereotype those who die and render empathy difficult for some, and impossible for others?

Evil is the absence of empathy, I believe actor Alec Baldwin said to the jury trying Nazis for the Holocaust in the remake of the film Judgment at Nuremberg. If true, is it not the presence of empathy that makes us good folk, if not honorable and admirable?

In a new study of brain activity and empathy, researchers found that feeling powerless boosted empathy with others in distress, whereas feeling powerful reduced subject’s capacity to “feel with” a person in distress. Hmmm….

There is an oft-told tale of a beggar boy who, upon asking for a small coin from a passing rich man, is asked by the powerful prince, “One of my eyes is glass, the other is real. If can tell me which is one is made of glass and which one is real, I will give you a coin.”

The boy quickly shouts, “Oh, sire! That is a simple matter. The left is your real one.”

“That’s correct!” cries the rich man. “How could you tell?”

The boy replied, “Easy, sire, the right one was full of empathy.”

The letter-to-the-editor author is not alone. Millions of people around the world believe as he does. Suicidal people – if they want to – should go ahead and kill themselves and not inconvenience the rest of us, or perhaps be fined or jailed if they do not die.

Few know, understand, or believe the science that this vote will actually save lives – which it will. Means restriction – the restricting of any method of suicide – actually works, but for reasons which are not apparent to most. Perhaps having never been clinically depressed themselves, strangers to utter hopelessness cannot imagine how the brain functions in extremis, and that when a suicide plan is thwarted, another does not emerge as it might in a healthy brain.

The vote is historic or it would never have made it to CNN. As an evolutionary psychologist, why couldn’t I speculate that San Franciscans have evolved to a higher order of human being? Other communities have done similar things, and for the same reasons, but $77 million? I can’t see this vote – or its attendant costs – happening in many places, including in my own county or state, but I would be delighted to be surprised.

Back to empathy. Empathy – and its boon companion, compassion – are the fuels that feed the engines of the suicide prevention movement. Without both, preventing suicidal self-directed violence in others simply cannot, and will not, happen. To stand and watch and label and blame the thousands of people who kill themselves somewhere in the world everyday only requires that the rest of us look away – say nothing, do nothing, and feel nothing for them and their loved ones.

The continuing public health menace of suicide is not just a crisis of preventable deaths, but an enduring reflection of our collective indifference. But no longer for those in the Bay Area who voted for the nets, God bless them every one.

Critics complain about the cost of the nets, about who we are trying to save – those useless mentally ill (about one fourth of us in any given year) – and about the how the beauty of the bridge will be forever ruined. Me thinks they miss the point.

The point of the nets is not about saving scores of lives, but about the larger meaning of the vote. Supporters voted this expense upon themselves to save strangers – people they will never meet, people they will never know, and people with whom they share but little genetic material.

While we are all out of Africa and share our genes with every other human, it is our collective expression of empathy for total strangers that makes us the grand species. The pro-net vote says, if you take your own life, we will all be diminished. The vote says, though we don’t know you, your life matters to us.

In my view, the nets is not just about discouraging desperate people to rethink their decision to end unbearable suffering, but about empathy, about love.

Love that says, we understand your pain, and we want you to live!

Love that says, we believe in science and that when you see the nets you will not go elsewhere to end your suffering but look for new ways to live.

Love that says, we believe you are more like us than unlike us, and that your pain today could our pain tomorrow.

Love that says, you think you have tried all doors, but we believe you have not tried all doors, so let us show you doors you may have overlooked.

Love that says, the net you see is not made of steel but of flesh and blood, of hands willing to catch you… hands willing share in your burden if you will but let us.

The message of the nets is at once powerful and far reaching. As an icon of America and its people, the Golden Gate Bridge nets say to the world, we are a kind, loving, and empathic people. We know those who die by suicide are ill and need help, not ridicule, not a cold eye, and not dismissal, but compassion, caring, and new hope.

The nets say, yes, we all have to die someday, but today is not that day… not like this, and not from this bridge.

The nets say, take my hand, step back, and we will get through this together.

To me the vote translates into the following subtext:

It is not about the millions we will spend to save you if you jump from our bridge, but that we wish the world to know that when it comes to understanding and preventing suicide, the time of ignorance, stigma, taboo, superstition, and fear are ending.

Dr. Paul

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