mental health

RFK Bridge’s Suicide Prevention Sign’s Phone Promise Doesn’t Ring True

An emergency call box on Wards Island near the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, July 11, 2019.
An emergency call box on Wards Island near the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, July 11, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

A sign on the Queens side of the Robert F. Kennedy Bridge, near a staircase on the walkway toward Randall’s Island, reads, “LIFE IS WORTH LIVING.”

“PHONE AHEAD,” the sign also declares. It provides the number to a 24-hour suicide-prevention hotline run by NYC Well, part of ThriveNYC, a mental health program spearheaded by Mayor Bill de Blasio’s wife, Chirlane McCray.

But there is no phone ahead — at least not for pedestrians.

That means anyone who walked over the bridge would not have access to a landline to call for help, despite the sign’s promise.

“We certainly need to have the phones,” said Councilmember Steven Matteo (R-Staten Island), who has been pushing for more suicide-prevention measures on local bridges, especially the Verrazzano-Narrows.

“Can you imagine someone who is going to maybe reach out and then can’t because we don’t have the phones there? That’s asinine,” he added.

A spokesperson for the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, which oversees the RFK, the Verrazzano-Narrows and five other bridges around the city, insisted that the Queens span of the former Triborough Bridge has two phones that are checked regularly and connect to NYC Well.

A sign on the Queens side of the RFK Bridge says "PHONE AHEAD," but there is no phone on the bridge, on July 11, 2019.
A sign on the Queens side of the RFK Bridge says “PHONE AHEAD,” but there is no phone on the bridge, on July 11, 2019. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval/THE CITY

But those phones aren’t accessible to pedestrians: One is 80 feet past the sign on the northbound roadway to Randall’s Island, according to the MTA spokesperson, Christopher McKniff. The other is on a southbound on-ramp going to Queens.

Four people have died from jumping off the RFK Bridge, since 2015, including one this year, but none in the previous two years, according to the MTA.

Other crossings checked by THE CITY, including the Brooklyn, Queensboro and George Washington bridges, have phones readily available for pedestrians. For example, the George Washington, which is run by the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, has six phones. It also has more than 30 safety signs, a tall fence and a netting canopy over its walkway intended to deter people from jumping.

There is an emergency phone at the foot of the RFK Bridge on the Randall’s Island side ⁠— about a 20-minute walk from the sign indicating a phone is up “ahead.”

THE CITY tested the phone, pressing its red button to make a call, to check if it connected to NYC Well. A phone operator answered quickly but was from 911.

Suicides on the Rise

In March 2018, the NYPD saved a man on the RFK Bridge on the stretch between Harlem and Randall’s Island, the Daily News reported. In February, police pulled a man from the East River, saving his life, after he jumped off the bridge, according to the Astoria Post.

Matt Kudish, executive director of the New York City Metro chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, an advocacy group, said anyone walking across a bridge and contemplating suicide should have the opportunity to call a counselor who could listen and try to help.

“It’s important that we do everything in our power to install telephones on the pedestrian side of the bridge as soon as possible,” Kudish said. “It is truly a matter of life and death.”

In New York City, 124 people died by “jumping from high place” in 2017, according to the city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. Another 27 suicides were due to drowning.

There were 21 suicides that year where the location was recorded as a city bridge, according to the Health Department. The majority of these had jumping as the cause, while a smaller number were attributed to drowning.

In New York state, the rate of suicide rose 28.8% between 1999 to 2016, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In 2017, the most recent year for which data is available, there were 1,696 deaths by suicide statewide — a rate of 8.1 per 100,000 people.

The city Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which oversees ThriveNYC, said suicide prevention is a major priority for the agency, and it strives to provide the most effective resources to those who need them.

“We work with partners in other agencies on making resources available through their infrastructure,” said Health Dept. spokesperson Patrick Gallahue. “We are always considering the best possible placement and use of resources and will do the same here.”

‘We Need it, My Friend’

For years, the existence of a sign but no phone on the RFK Bridge baffled Mark Thomas. Thomas, a self-described “phone guy” who maintains the Payphone Project, a site that documents the demise of the once-ubiquitous call boxes, has blogged about the absentee phone several times since 2012.

Thomas said he first noticed a sign and a phone’s absence in 2010. Back then, the signage was slightly different. It was green, white and yellow, and said a phone was “150 FEET” ahead.

NYC Well phones are available to pedestrians on the George Washington Bridge.
NYC Well phones are available to pedestrians on the George Washington Bridge. Photo: Gabriel Sandoval /THE CITY

“You could argue that people who really want to get out of this life aren’t going to pay attention to a phone like that, but what if they did? What if that would have made the difference?” he asked.

Angel Morales and Kimberly Ramirez of Queens, who trekked over the RFK Bridge last Wednesday, found the lack of phones disturbing.

“If they actually cared, they would provide more protection for people,” said Ramirez, 20.

She noted that the bridge could benefit from a barrier or netting in its middle section, where the guardrail is low.

Research suggests that barriers are the best way to prevent bridge-related suicides and that phones aren’t always effective for suicide deterance. But phones can reduce suicidal thinking, and provide an option to people who may be experiencing a mental health crisis, research shows.

Bicyclist Lalo Arellanos, 48, paused for a moment to look at the sign. Dripping sweat, he said he’s seen the emergency phone at the bridge’s terminus. But he’s never seen an NYC Well phone on the bridge.

“We need it, my friend,” Arellanos told THE CITY, before pedaling away.

If you are having thoughts of self-harm and need someone to talk to, you can call 1-888-NYC-WELL, text “WELL” to 65173, or visit https://nycwell.cityofnewyork.us/en/ to get in touch with a trained counselor who will listen and try to help.

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