How to discourage suicide?A few years ago, I had a chance to visit the observation deck on the 86th floor of the Empire State Building in New York. I was expecting a romantic mood since it was the location of a rendezvous in the film “Sleepless in Seattle.” While the view of Manhattan from the observatory was breathtaking, the fence around the terrace was rather an eyesore. The three-meter (10-foot) fence was leaning inward at the top, and I thought it was too much to keep visitors safe. But I later found out that the cautionary measure was understandable. Since the observation deck opened in 1931 and until the fence was put up in 1947, more than 30 people have attempted suicide by jumping off from the building.
They may have wanted to end their lives at this beautiful place. Many suicide sites are known for beautiful scenery. French writer Martin Monestier’s 2007 book “Suicides” list the top 10 suicide sites, including the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower in Paris, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Nanjing Yangtze River Bridge. Six of the top 10 sites are bridges, and they are easily accessible and offer breathtaking views.
Korea is no exception. Suicide attempts are often made at bridges over the Han River. In 2012, the city of Seoul launched the suicide prevention campaign, “Bridge of Life,” starting from Mapo Bridge. As a person approaches the bridge rail, messages of consolation appear. “Have you had dinner yet?” “Are you worried?” The company that came up with the idea for this campaign won many awards.
However, the campaign led to the opposite outcome. In 2012, 15 people attempted suicide on Mapo Bridge. Then, it increased six times to 93 in 2013 and 12 times to 184 in 2014. Let’s discuss the white bear effect.
American psychologist Daniel Wegner divided participants into two groups, asking one of the groups to keep talking and not to think of a white bear. And the other group was instructed to keep talking but think of a white bear. In the end, the group that was told not to think of a white bear thought of it more. It is the irony of suppressed thinking. In human psychology, you are more likely to think of suicide the more you are discouraged. Also, the campaign garnered media attention and made Mapo Bridge associated with suicide.
This controversial campaign ends next month. And the city of Seoul has been holding a contest for suicide prevention ideas since Aug. 7. But an unverified idea may be a fancy campaign with no effect. Rather than some inventive ideas, physical measures such as higher fences and safety nets may be more effective. It is a matter of life and death, and it deserves extra attention and care.
*The author is an editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo. JoongAng Ilbo, Aug. 10, Page 31
by NAM JEONG-HO