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At Golden Gate Bridge, Texting Offers New Lifeline To Prevent Suicides

The Golden Gate Bridge stands over San Francisco Bay in 2014. Bridge officials have rolled out a crisis text hotline to encourage young people to reach out for help.
Justin Sullivan
Getty Images
The Golden Gate Bridge stands over San Francisco Bay in 2014. Bridge officials have rolled out a crisis text hotline to encourage young people to reach out for help.

Sitting next to the living room sofa, fully charged, is the cell phone that belonged to Kimberlyrenee and Manuel Gamboa's son, Kyle.

"We've kept it on and I just think his friends, it helps," Kimberlyrenee says. "Well it helps us to heal and I think it helps his friends to heal."

So they can see whenever one of Kyle's friends sends a text.

"Yeah, and here's another one that says, 'Love you brother, I really don't know what happened. I miss you, I wish you were here.' And that was June 2," she says.

It's been three years since the 18-year-old high school senior skipped school, drove to the Golden Gate Bridge and jumped.

New prevention strategy

The number of people younger than 25 showing up at the bridge intending to commit suicide is five times what it was in 2000, according to officials. On average, two to three people jump each month. Bridge and California Highway Patrol officers stop most of them, but they still need more help.

Each time the Bridge Board holds a public meeting, the Gamboas show up to demand the board install a suicide net — a big, expensive project that keeps getting delayed.

But, at a recent meeting, the Gamboas learned of the bridge's new prevention strategy: the crisis text hotline.

"I'm all for it," Manuel says.

It's not the the ultimate solution, he says, but Manuel does believe that text messaging is a very big part of the young community. So now there are signs on the bridge urging anyone considering suicide to text the number 741741.

Texting is easier

In the dining room of her San Francisco apartment, Ellen Kaster is answering texts to the hotline, which come in from all over the the country. She's a volunteer with the suicide prevention network called Crisis Text Line.

"Right now I have a texter who has struggled with drug addiction and has gone through phases of being clean and relapsing," she says.

The texter tells Kaster he feels suicidal. This is a code orange, which means her supervisor — a social worker — has now joined in to monitor the conversation. They'll call police if the suicide threats intensify.

Kaster says for many, texting these emotional conversations is easier.

"It can feel very vulnerable, especially for the younger generation, to actually dial a real phone and talk to somebody, so there's something very impersonal about text that's very natural," she explains.

'Just give tomorrow a chance'

When a suicide threat is texted from the Golden Gate Bridge, the hotline counselors contact the bridge patrol. That team, which is constantly on the lookout for people who might be suicidal, is led by Capt. Lisa Locati.

"The ages here are just startling — 16, 22, 25," she says.

In the bridge command center, Locati thumbs through a binder full of printed Facebook pages. These are people whose loved ones have called in, worried they might jump.

What really bothers Locati is how many are just kids who don't have much perspective on life.

"They got a bad grade in class, broke up with their boyfriend or girlfriend," she says. "There's a lot of bullying going on in the age group."

Locati says that can be devastating to some young people.

"You want so much to make the connection and convince this person that dying is not the answer, at least today," she says. "Just give tomorrow a chance. So, yeah, it's very exhausting.

Reach out, someone will answer

At the Gamboas' home Kimberlyrenee says she doesn't know whether her son Kyle would have reached out to the textline. But he was on his phone that morning.

"And his last contact was on Facebook, and he texted," she says.

She hopes if Kyle's friends will reach out to a phone he hasn't answered in three years, maybe kids on the bridge will text for help, and someone will answer.

Copyright 2016 KQED

Stephanie Martin Taylor