Franklin James Cook

Daring Rescue Saves a Life, but Is There More to the Story?

In Intervention, Prevention on March 18, 2009 at 6:33 am

By Franklin Cook, SPNAC Editor

A story about the rescue a few weeks ago of a potential suicide victim poised to jump from a bridge deserves mention even if there are pros and cons about how the rescue was carried out.

First, the “pro”: A man’s life was saved by a woman who stopped to talk to him as he climbed up onto a railing to ready himself to jump from the West Gate Bridge in Melbourne, Australia. The “con”? The man was wrestled to the ground as the woman was speaking to him . (To be clear, the story has a happy ending, notwithstanding my criticism after the fact.)

Here’s how reporter Kate Rose tells the story in the account she wrote for the Herald Sun:

[Terry Bracks and her husband, Steve,] were returning home … when they saw a large man ‘standing on the railings obviously looking as though he was about to throw himself off.’ Mr. Bracks and two other men … pulled him to safety. But it was Mrs. Bracks who was first on the scene and who tried to talk the man down before he was dragged to safety and restrained.

As I said, all’s well that ends well, and it is heartening that the would-be victim credits the Bracks and their co-helpers with saving his life.

“She came right up to me, and put her hand on my upper arm and just spoke to me. The more I think about it, the more I admire her courage,” [he said]. “I was looking down at the water and psyching myself to go, and she I suppose delayed me, and delayed me just long enough … next thing I know I was pinned to the ground … She … saved my life.”

The counterpoints, then, include a concern about Mrs. Bracks’ (and possibly the other rescuers’) safety and a concern about the man being “dragged to safety.”

The man who was rescued points out the following alternative scenario:

“The courage of that woman was just incredible, I mean, I’m a fairly big bloke, I could have just turned around and assaulted her, just smashed her,” [he] said.

And here is the husband’s description of the man’s demeanor:

“She talked to him first and tried to engage him in conversation but he was in a very distressed state and not responding. He was obviously in a very agitated state, and very angry and not himself.”

So my questions are: Might she have engaged the man verbally from a step away (instead of getting close enough to touch him)? And if her talking to him was “holding him back” from jumping, was the physical intervention by Mr. Bracks and the others necessary? Perhaps the answer is “no” she couldn’t have (because he was so starkly in a world of his own that her touch was required to gain his attention) and “yes” it was (because his jumping was so certain and so imminent that nothing else would have stopped it). But I do think, first, that considering one’s safety when engaging a distraught, suicidal person is a legitimate concern and, second, that if verbal engagement is established, it is reasonable to consider allowing it to run its course if possible.

I applaud the Bracks’s success and respect the reality that the outcome in this instance was excellent to the point of seeming miraculous, as far as the story goes. But to go beyond the story, I would suggest that it is the rare case when physical force will “save the day.” The usual circumstance is that a person having thoughts of suicide requires someone to listen to him in a way that allows him to talk about the pain underlying his situation and to offer him the kind of help that will ease that pain.

I want to emphasize that I am not faulting anyone as far as the story above is concerned–for “Monday morning quarterbacking” is indeed an easy game to play compared to walking up to a person who is facing a life or death situation and trying to help him–but I must say that there is also a concern that extends beyond the story of this man’s rescue, which is embodied in the question “What next?”

What help is available in his community to answer his needs? What resources can be brought to bear to help him (and his family and their circle of support) answer his (and their) own needs themselves? What physical, emotional, psychological, and spritual assistance will there be not only to “save the day” (simply and dramatically, when a person is “on the brink”) but also to help people at risk of suicide live life more healthfully and more effectively day after day both before they might attempt to kill themselves and into the distant future?

[The abridged URL for this post is  http://tinyurl.com/DaringRescue .]

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  1. Franklin, you are correct to bring up these points. Having (both of us) gone through ASIST training and using the “bridge simulation” we know that the caregiver’s safety is important. Talking someone down is never easy. At least in this case the outcome was positive. Yet we are encouraging caregivers to engage the person in crisis, to talk them down safely.

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