Strangers on the Bridge
One of the most striking facts to emerge from The Stranger on the Bridge, Channel 4’s documentary charting Jonny Benjamin’s global search for “Mike”, the stranger who had talked him down from throwing himself off Waterloo Bridge, was the number of people who came forward with convincing stories of having saved someone in similar circumstances. We’d all like to think that if we were to encounter a troubled person intent on doing themselves harm, we too would have the courage to stop, reach out and try to connect with that person, and potentially save a life.
Sadly, bridge suicides are increasing in London, and in 2015 there were no fewer than 31 drownings in the Thames, twice as many people as lost their lives in cycling accidents. The City of London Corporation, while addressing the broader issue of suicide prevention, is also determined to focus on the local problem of high risk locations such as bridges, which sadly attract some people to travel to the Square Mile with the intention of taking their own lives.
In my years of running support meetings for the people left behind after a suicide, I’ve heard hundreds of stories of loss, and one of the recurring themes has been the question “How can we stop this happening to another family? How can we prevent further suicides?”. So any new initiative that aims to reduce or prevent suicide is to be warmly welcomed, particularly by those of us who have personal experience of such a tragic loss.
The Corporation has published its Suicide Prevention Action Plan, 2016-2019 in January this year, and more recently their Business Healthy initiative has produced an excellent leaflet Guidance on Suicide Intervention which aims to help anyone who finds themselves in a situation where they think someone may be at risk of taking their own life.
They are also currently providing a free one-hour training session, delivered by London Samaritans, for anyone interested in gaining the skills and confidence to help people in crisis. So I was glad to have the opportunity of attending the first of these training sessions recently, one grey, drizzly April morning, in an unostentatious but impressive building, tucked away in Montague Close, just south of London Bridge.
Boasting stunning views across the Thames, and redolent of a vanished London, Glaziers Hall is home to three of London’s historic Livery Companies. In addition to the ancient and eponymous Glaziers, the more recently founded Launderers, and Makers of Scientific Instruments are cited on the wall plaques at the entrance. For me, a beguiling touch was the design of the beautiful upholstered chairs, their backs emblazoned with designs derived from coats-of-arms of the three resident Livery Companies.
The mood among the dozen or so attendees who had gathered in the welcoming, light-filled London Bridge Room, was engaged, positive and even optimistic, despite the somewhat sombre subject of the session. The training itself was a two-hander, providing the perspectives of both the Samaritans (in approaching and engaging with the person at risk) and the emergency mental health nurse who described the triage process that is gone through when a person is brought to A&E.
We heard from some attendees of their own encounters with people deemed at risk. I was impressed at how vigilant, caring and courageous these City of London staff were in monitoring the wellbeing of vulnerable people they identify among the hustle and bustle of a city teeming with commuters, workers and tourists. Fortunately, in all cases they’d encountered, their interventions had a happy ending and the person was kept safe.
The training maintained a good balance between background information and common sense guidance. The main point I took from the training was the importance of staying safe yourself, while remaining calm and engaged with the person in need of help.
During the discussion towards the end of the session, came the hardest piece of advice to follow: that, if the person you’re trying to help carries out their suicide attempt, you must not feel that you’ve failed, because you haven’t failed. This person’s action was not within your control.
It’s also worth reflecting that, even if a situation does end in tragedy, those family members left behind will nonetheless be forever grateful to “the stranger on the bridge”.
© Suicide Bereaved Network 2016, updated 2018