“He Seemed To Be Writing Something.” — A Story For Mental Health Awareness Week

Claiborne Pell / Newport Bridge, Newport Rhode Island / Photo by S.A.Leys

There’s something about growing up in a waterfront community and seeing a view like this: this is a photo I took a few years ago of the Claiborne Pell/Newport Bridge. Every time I see a picture of this bridge — especially at night, it still haunts me.

If you look at it, you would say, “yes, it’s a great picture of a bridge.”

This picture represents the “why” behind my healthcare career, my interest in psychology, and the need to help others. It’s why, throughout my healthcare career, I have driven to the Emergency Department to sit with patients and families during some of their most difficult moments. No matter what day it is or what time it is.

My friend, Michael, who used to help, coach, and tease me when I was working at a local yacht club, ended his life at a young age by jumping from the center span of the Newport Bridge. In the next few days, as his death became more known to those of us in our community, there were discussions from people who knew him — seeing him sitting in his car as they drove down a street along the waterfront: “He seemed to be writing something” one of my friends told me. He regretted that he didn’t stop to speak with him. Then another person said the same thing a few hours later — about seeing him sitting in his car “writing something.”

No one stopped, and he died.

I always wondered if there was something I could have said, something I could have done. And then, after wondering and thinking about Michael frequently for the next several years, I realized that he was gone and I would never know the answers to the questions we all had. I realized that it was more important to remember him for the lessons and the wisdom he taught me because of the good friend he was and the relationship I had with him.

I realized it was more important to preserve his legacy, our friendship, and the many memories I had of him. I remembered the time he chastised me for several weeks after arriving at the yacht club to find I had raised the massive yacht club burgee upside down when I hoisted it on the flagpole that morning. “The white stripe starts at the top left!” he yelled.

I remembered the several hours he had assisted me voluntarily whenever there were storm warnings and we needed to ensure everything around the club was boarded up or tied down. He was a thoughtful, talented man with abundant potential who died far too soon.

At that time, people didn’t always know what happened once someone jumped from the bridge. I later learned that they would sometimes be transported to one of the docks at a marina close to the bridge while they waited for the medical examiner to come.

I learned about this process during the summers when I was in school (from high school through graduate school), when I worked as a launch driver, shuttling passengers from their boats in the harbor to different docks around Newport. It was a great way to meet people, work outside on the water and have fun meeting people from all over the country who had come to visit our city.

But there were a few times when I would be driving towards a dock — this one dock close to the bridge — and see one or two police officers standing over a deceased person on the dock, covered by a blanket. I would slow down and get within about 15–20 feet of the dock and ask them where I could go to drop off my passengers. — Because that dock wasn’t the place, they didn’t need to be any closer to the person lying on the dock in front of them.

So this is where you say, “if a blanket covers them, then you can’t see their face.” And yes, you would be correct. Sometimes, you could see their face or shoes — depending on how tall they were and how small the blanket was — if there was a blanket; if there were shoes.

It was always dark, a slow, quieter (because voices carry across the water) conversation with the police officers and one that stopped every passenger in my boat from speaking to each other as they slowly realized what was happening.

I decided to go back to school for my bachelor’s in Psychology when I realized I had seen enough and wanted to do more to help people who felt the same way my friend Michael did.

September is National Suicide Prevention month; this week is Mental Health awareness week. — A month, a week — here’s the thing: if someone ever tells you they are depressed, anxious, suicidal, or need help or emotional support, ask them if they are safe. Let them know that support from a highly qualified, compassionate professional team is available for them (or you) 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

The most difficult step in this process is the first one — admitting you need help and then reaching out, asking for and accepting it.

Please encourage them to reach out to them and ask for the professional assistance and support they need and deserve. If you have an Employee Assistance Program, help them contact them.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 988.

Reach out to the National Alliance of Mental Illness for additional information about how to help a loved one who is in crisis at http://www.nami.org NAMI

Ever feel like you’re struggling to keep up with the demands of your career or feeling stressed and burnt out? You’re not alone. More professionals are in high-stress careers that are affecting their health and well-being. Let’s fix this. S.A. Leys is a Consultant and High-Performance Coach for professionals. Need help? Visit http://susanleys.com

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Susan Leys

Susan Leys

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I consult and coach the healthcare professionals and teams who care for all of us. http://susanleys.com