The View From Vista Bridge

Portland is known as the city of bridges—but it’s also a capital of suicides. After losing a close friend who jumped, I needed to find out why.

The View From Vista Bridge

I had slept in, but it was still early when I rolled over in bed and found an email from my housemate, Gordon, on my phone. He’d sent it after midnight – out of character for him – and the subject line read, “Important: rent and other things.” It seemed important. It was long enough that my phone froze while loading it. I ran downstairs to check my laptop. Late-night emails were not his style.

Gordon, whose name has been changed to protect his and his family’s privacy, and I had lived together for eight years, in two different houses, always with other housemates, but he was the constant. We were never a couple – and both identified as straight – but I had, early in our first living arrangement, referred to him only half-jokingly as my wife. He did most of the cooking and mixed all of the drinks. He handled party logistics but often put me in charge of inviting people. In the throes of a major anxiety attack, he took me to Urgent Care and held me while I sobbed in the office until one of the nurses told us they needed to turn the room over.

The past few months had been tough on Gordon. His email touched on a lot of the reasons that I’d worried about him. His longtime girlfriend, Kim – who’d become my close friend – had moved out a few months earlier. Gordon’s grandfather had died and other members of his family were in declining health. Both of us had been struggling financially; his message revealed that a couple weeks before, a big, years-old tax debt had suddenly caught up with him. It cleaned out his bank account and left him desperate and, in his mind, with no attractive options.

Still, as I read it, I didn’t immediately get where Gordon’s email was going. Not until I reached a section outlining what to do with his possessions, followed by a list of people to call as soon as possible, did I recognize what this was: a suicide note. The list was subdivided into people I’d need to call for practical reasons – his boss, our landlord – and mutual friends who would help me sort through this mess. This mess.

I ran upstairs, cell phone in hand, and knocked on Gordon’s door. When he didn’t answer, I walked in. The room was empty. I called 911 and started pacing around the house. 911 transferred me to the Multnomah County Crisis Line. While I gave a description of my friend for the missing persons report, I noticed something in the corner of the front window. I opened the door and grabbed it.

“There’s a business card here from the medical examiner’s office,” I said, by now barely breathing.

I sat down on the couch. I knew what medical examiners did, but I still hoped that the card didn’t mean what I thought it meant. The dispatcher offered to stay on the line and dial for me, which I accepted. He told the medical examiner my name and that I was worried about my housemate. I gave him our names and our address.

“He is deceased,” the medical examiner said curtly.

I lurched forward and fell against the arm of the couch. I probably cried out; I can’t remember. It might have taken a few minutes to collect myself, to ask the examiner what had happened. It was as if I had been plunged underwater. I thought if I knew how Gordon had died, then I could get some air. Then I could believe it. Then I would know what to do.

“He jumped off the Vista Bridge,” the examiner said.

At thirty-four, I am old enough to be able to divide my life into phases. Some phases overlap with each other. Some fade into one other almost undetectably: friendships that fizzle over time, one-night stands that become years-long relationships. Other phases end so abruptly that I lose my bearings. Gordon, the most reliable traveling companion of my adult life, was gone. I was nauseated, terrified.

The Vista Bridge was built in 1926. Originally named the Vista Avenue Viaduct, it is not one of the eight bridges that cross the Willamette River, the ones depicted on posters and water bottles branding Portland as the “city of bridges.” It spans a ravine in the West Hills, in a quiet, verdant residential neighborhood called Goose Hollow. The Bridge crosses the MAX light-rail tracks and a two-lane street. It has been listed on the National Register of Historic Places since 1984, and it is 120 feet tall. This doesn’t sound like much, but more than one longtime resident told me that when you cross it, a curious, anxious feeling washes over you. (I wouldn’t know: I never had a reason to cross it before Gordon died, and I can’t bring myself to visit now.)

Vista Bridge, where Gordon committed suicide.
Vista Bridge, where Gordon committed suicide.

For me and thousands of others, the Bridge is a grim monument to the people who ended their lives there. There is no reliable way to track the exact number of people who have died on the bridge since its completion, though the most common estimate, given by local suicide-prevention groups, is 176 – earning it the long-running nickname “the Suicide Bridge.”

“The most frustrating thing is, it’s a very impulsive place,” says Bonnie Kahn, a Portland arts consultant. She has shared an office with her husband, Kenneth, an attorney, at the base of the Bridge since 2006. She has personally witnessed seven suicides from the bridge in as many years. At the beginning of 2013, just a few months before Gordon died, the Kahns decided to act.

They formed a nonprofit called Friends of the Vista Bridge and began advocating that either a fence or screen be placed on the Bridge. After a fifteen-year-old girl jumped off the bridge in June 2013 – a month after Gordon died – City Commissioner Steve Novick declared a public safety emergency. This allowed him to appropriate $236,000 from the city’s transportation budget to build a temporary fence.

Construction began in mid-July and was completed in August.

After Gordon died, a fifty-one-year-old man jumped just before the fence finished construction. (A volunteer from a Lines For Life/Friends of the Vista Bridge patrol project – which had volunteers out twenty-four seven in the summer before the fence was finished – tried to talk him out of jumping, but failed.) Last October – after the fence went up – a man was able to climb over the fence, but cops talked him down and took him to a hospital. In January of this year, a fourteen-year-old shot himself on the south end of the bridge.

Kenneth and Bonnie Kahn formed Friends of the Vista Bridge to advocate for construction of a suicide-preventing fence.
Kenneth and Bonnie Kahn formed Friends of the Vista Bridge to advocate for construction of a suicide-preventing fence.

Not everyone liked the fence. Members of the Goose Hollow Neighborhood Association fought the barriers. They didn’t like that Novick hadn’t consulted them, and they said the mesh screens were ugly, that they clashed with the bridge’s historic architecture. Some mental health advocates argued that putting barriers up on the bridge would simply result in suicidal people seeking other means to end their lives. “When the barriers go up, the volunteers go home,” reads a blog post on the Mental Health Association of Portland’s website. “Where does this leave the suicidal person on the bridge? He is protected against one method of suicide in one location — and it’s possible that for some people, that will be enough. But for many, the barriers will merely inspire consideration of other means and places. Turned away without help, they will go elsewhere, and they will be just as dead as if they jumped from the Vista Bridge.”

That pervasive line of thinking doesn’t gel with suicide prevention research, says Dr. Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. (Disclosure: I made a donation to AFSP in Gordon’s memory last year, and participated in its Out of the Darkness fundraising walk in October.)

One study found that even emergency room personnel tend to assume those who’ve attempted suicide will, when released, make another attempt, and that most will, eventually, die from suicide. Neither of these things is borne out by the research. In fact, according to a review of research by the Harvard School of Public Health, only about seven percent of those who attempt suicide eventually die by self-inflicted means.

Two AFSP-funded studies on the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, found that barriers cut suicide rates in half. Researchers also found that most people who jumped from the Clifton Bridge – like most people who commit suicide – had not engaged in suicidal or self-harming behavior before.

“People do not seem to substitute one means for another,” says Donna Noonan, Oregon Public Health Division’s youth suicide prevention coordinator.

A few days after Gordon’s memorial service, his sister, who lives in another state, told me she’d done a Google search on the bridge and come across a spate of articles about the proposed barriers.

“When I was in high school,” she said, “I had some friends who were really into stealing cars. They didn’t break into cars, though; they found cars that were unlocked or running.” Gordon’s death, and others like it, are what she calls “a crime of opportunity.”

Gordon and I lived on Portland’s east side, about three miles from the bridge. He didn’t have a car, and buses were not running at the time he left the house – probably about 1:30 a.m. That means he would have walked across the Willamette River to a bridge where there was a lower chance of survival or rescue.

Last September, the Portland Police Bureau released a report on the number of suicides in Portland that occurred between April 2011 and July 2013. Precisely why the Bureau selected this time period, or this length of time, is not clear. Their original summary claimed that Portlanders killed themselves at three times the national rate, and local media repeated the stat. This turned out to be an apples-to-oranges error, with police comparing that twenty-six-month period in Portland to the country’s year, which would create a glaring discrepancy in just about any metric. Still, despite the error, Portland stands out. As of 2010, the city’s suicide rate was twenty-five percent higher than the nation’s. As a state, Oregon stands out even further, with a suicide rate forty-one percent higher than the national average.

These numbers run somewhat counter to the popular perception of Portland as an incubator of self-conscious, cutesy eccentricity. But it wasn’t that long ago that the Northwest in general – and Portland in particular – was understood as a center of gloom rather than an attractor of harried idealists and blithe underachievers. “It started out as a bad mood and slowly grew into a city,” Aaron Cometbus wrote in a late-1990s piece simply titled, “Portland.” I first moved to western Oregon around the time that piece was published. Friends and relatives from other places sometimes asked how I could live with the rain, or said they’d heard the Northwest produced a lot of suicides and serial killers.

Director Gus Van Sant’s drifters and junkies and novelist Katherine Dunn’s grim circus freaks are, I suspect, not what people these days think of first when they think of Portland. But it’s still not an easy place to live.

In Multnomah County, which includes Portland, the suicide rate has slowly climbed in recent years. According to the Oregon Health Authority, in 2003 there were 109 deaths by suicide here. That number dipped slightly the following two years; in 2012 there were 130 intentional self-inflicted deaths. State epidemiologists don’t have a final figure for 2013, but guess it to be around 136.

Harkavy-Friedman, of AFSP, offers explanations for regional variations in suicide rates, and she says there are a lot of things communities can do to reduce or contain suicide rates. In addition to installing barriers and bridge fences at popular public suicide sites, she says a variety of interventions have been shown to work. A welcome, unintended consequence of the shift away from coal-gas heat was that it became impossible to commit suicide by sticking one’s head in the oven. Currently, just over half of American suicides are committed by firearms, and states where access to guns is easier – including Oregon – have higher suicide rates. (The Mental Health Association of Portland advises people with mental health diagnoses who choose to own guns to make a gun storage plan – and, if necessary, ask a local police department to take the gun into inventory.)

Harkavy-Friedman also says that suicide lifelines work and that their impact can actually last decades.

“What you’re doing is buying time,” she says. Means restriction and lifelines give people a chance to pause for a moment when they’re considering ending their life. “If you can get them through that crisis, then you can save a life.”

Community mental health interventions also help. At one time, Hungary had one of the highest suicide rates in the world. In 2000, the AFSP funded a study to train physicians in Hungary to screen for and treat depression and suicidal ideation – thoughts about, or an unusual preoccupation with, suicide. Twenty-eight general practitioners and their nurses, serving a region of 73,000 people, learned how to recognize and treat depression. Health officials also opened a depression treatment clinic and created a psychiatric consult line. Between 1996 and 2000, the region’s annual suicide rate was 59.7 per 100,000 people; during the next five years it was 49.9. Researchers compared results to a control region and found a similar decline, but both regions saw a much sharper drop-off in suicides versus the surrounding county and the country as a whole.

A hand-scrawled sign on the edge of Vista Bridge.
A hand-scrawled sign on the edge of Vista Bridge.

“There’s lots of hope that community-wide interventions can make a difference,” Harkavy-Friedman said. “You have to be able to provide the care as well as the content.”

Unlike many residents of Goose Hollow, I supported the bridge barriers. In fact, when Commissioner Novick announced the fences would be constructed, Gordon’s former partner and I hand-delivered a thank-you note to him with more than twenty signatures from people who knew and cared about our friend. Gordon had racked up a considerable debt in therapy bills, after a new insurance provider unexpectedly began rejecting claims. As an employed, insured person whose carrier provided some mental health coverage, Gordon was better off than many people who struggle with chronic mental illness or are just having trouble adjusting to big life event.

In 2011, a federal Department of Justice investigation into police brutality in Portland found a pattern of excessive force against people in mental health crisis. Part of the problem is a lack of training, the settlement notes, recommending the Portland Police Bureau train more officers to react to mental health crisis. But so is access to care: Police act as mental-health providers by default because those in crisis have few places to go. The original draft of the DOJ settlement called for the creation of a drop-in center for people in crisis – but this summer, city officials called that part of the settlement “aspirational” and suggested it’s not likely to happen. Local hospitals have reduced the numbers of acute-care psychiatric beds due to poor reimbursement; in 2013, cops took 1,138 people to emergency rooms and just fifty to community-based treatment centers. In the former, people can end up on psychiatric hold for days. The state legislature levied a tobacco tax last year that promises $60 million in additional funding for community mental health services, and Affordable Care Act reforms requiring better parity for mental health services might help privately-insured patients in situations like Gordon’s. But at nearly every level, help is hard to get.

Gordon moved to Portland from the Bay Area in 2004. He was recovering from a devastating breakup, and on a few occasions he implied that he’d moved to get away from his memories. After he died, some old friends of his told me more explicitly that he’d said he couldn’t uncouple his Bay Area experience from his memories of the relationship. It hurt Gordon to go anywhere.

I could not, for years, relate to this. But for much of the last half of 2013, I began to understand. Gordon was everywhere. The city became a kind of psychic obstacle course. Every pub, every coffee house, every corner store seemed to have a Gordon-centered memory attached. Most of these were, of course, ordinary memories: There was the mediocre chain Chinese place we went to when we were both in bad moods; there was the street we sometimes walked down on the way to the grocery store. There was also the house itself. I gave myself two months to decide what to do with it. Staying and going both seemed equally impossible and painful. When I did decide to move, I found myself suddenly and massively relieved. No more memories. No coming home to a Gordon-less kitchen. No walking down the hallway wondering why he didn’t knock on my door. Then there was the bridge itself.

Last fall I had a work engagement in southwest Portland. It was a few blocks away from the Vista Bridge. After the event ended, I decided to walk over and stand beneath the bridge. It was a compulsion, and I didn’t know how I would react. I know that I would not even want to get particularly close. I remember that it was cool outside, but bright. I remember that I shook, that my legs almost buckled; that I cried, but not hard. I remember thinking passersby in cars and on bikes may well know precisely why I was there, that they’d seen other haunted pilgrims, that I might not even look strange to them. But I didn’t particularly care if I did.

When I see the word “vista” in a headline or in a public-safety tweet, I follow. The word still fills me with uneasiness and dread, even when someone is using it abstractly, as a reference to a beautiful view, rather than to a specific place.

Due to the bridge’s historic status, the fence on the Vista Bridge can only stay for five years. After that, it must be moved. Friends of the Vista Bridge is looking to raise $2.5 million for a permanent, architecturally appropriate barrier. An advisory committee of neighbors, community members and architects has formed to discuss what appropriate barriers would look like. The group no longer has volunteers patrolling the bridge, but it still publicizes Safe Talk – suicide prevention training offered by a local suicide prevention organization, Lines For Life.

Noonan, from the Oregon Public Health Division, emphasizes that bridge barriers save lives, but she also says that some of last year’s media coverage around the Vista Bridge – which included front-page stories and grisly descriptions of deaths – was “seriously troubling from a prevention perspective,” and she urged me to convey a message of hope. Research also suggests that graphic media coverage can lead to copycat deaths. It troubles me to consider that, in all likelihood, those temporary barriers may also have contributed to the uptick in deaths below the bridge in 2013.

Vista Bridge, now with a fence running along both sides.
Vista Bridge, now with a fence running along both sides.

“What we want to do is talk not about the hot spot and talk about the issue,” Kahn says.

Earlier this year, the Golden Gate Bridge – the site of more than 1,000 suicide deaths since its construction in 1937, though no one knows the exact number for sure – received funding to install suicide nets. Kahn believes that the Vista Bridge can be restored to the status of a monument.

“We can turn it back into the Vista Bridge, not the Suicide Bridge,” she said, “a place where people can come together and see a beautiful city.”

Describing suicide as a public health problem that requires a wide swath of infrastructural changes is, I suspect, counterintuitive to many people who perceive the act as the inevitable result of individual pathology or simple bad decision-making. Suicide is not like the infectious diseases that gave rise to public health infrastructure and framework. It’s nebulous. Prominent lives that end in suicide are suddenly read backwards; the act is, again and again, cast as inevitable; that the solution lies with the suicidal person alone, and not with the community.

There are parts of this story that I have told people again and again. There is also a part that, afraid of arousing further fear or worry, I kept largely to myself. In the last months of Gordon’s life, I was gripped by financial and existential worry, and my own thoughts got – fleetingly, but unmistakably – dark. If I fell behind on a work project, got a freelance check later than expected or just woke up a little hungover, a voice in my head would tell me you should probably just kill yourself.

Christen McCurdy, the author of this story, lost a friend who committed suicide from Vista Bridge.
Christen McCurdy, the author of this story, lost a friend who committed suicide from Vista Bridge.

It was not a hallucination, but these thoughts did not quite seem to come from me. They came from a part of my brain that’s reliably nasty to me, a part that generally sticks to, say, denigrating my work or telling me I look like shit today, rather than praising me. This sudden, vicious insistence that I ought to just die was new. It was terrifying. But I have been talking back to that part of myself my entire life: you look fine, you’re doing fine, this fucking plane is not going to crash. Now I had to add “and I am not going to fucking kill myself” to the list of necessary affirmations.

After I learned that Gordon died, I suppose I could have sat alone with the news for a while. I have done this with previous losses. Five years ago, I sat alone in my room for a few hours after getting the call that a terminally ill uncle had finally died. A friend killed himself when I was in high school, and because he lived far away, I got away with telling none of my friends about it for an entire year. But with Gordon, I was afraid. I could not imagine my future, my heart physically hurt, and I did not know what I would do with this fear if I let myself sit alone in the house too long. I was afraid I’d give in and try one of the ugly remedies my brain was suggesting.

I put on the kettle for tea. I went upstairs and woke our other roommate and told him the news. A volunteer from a nonprofit counseling program came to the house; the dispatcher had called me with the program’s number right after I got the news about Gordon. She talked us through the shock and helped us make a list of practical next steps. The first friends to arrive helped me make a list, and all day we made calls. I spoke to Gordon’s family for the first time. The house filled with people; dozens of people must have cycled in and out before sunset.

As the day progressed, I realized that, as badly as I had needed people to come over, they needed a place to come, too. They needed either a place to sit quietly, or a place to cry. They needed a place to rage or to console each other. I realized that they needed to see each other and that everybody wanted to know everybody else was okay, including me.

One night, sometime during the first week after Gordon died, our friend Jesse said, “You were never only yourself in the first place.” It was the precise thing every one of us needed to hear. We needed to hear that we didn’t have to be afraid to be alone, that we weren’t alone, that we never had been.

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The AFSP’s suicide prevention lifeline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Other resources are listed here