Imagining suicide


Twice weekly, I commute across the Golden Gate Bridge. I’ve taken this route for over a year, yet the view still consumes me. Whether marveling at the Bridge, seeing the sun (or fog) mingle with the Pacific Ocean, or eyeing the cramped San Francisco skyline that signals the end of my workday, I feel part of the grandeur, one small being contributing to a greater meaning.

Symbolically, bridges represent connection as well as transformation. They end separations and mark transitions. J. E. Cirlot wrote in A Dictionary of Symbols, “The bridge is always symbolic of a transition from one state to another — of change or the desire for change.” According to the Penguin Dictionary of Symbols a bridge is sometimes represented by a sword, highlighting that transitions are also sometimes dangerous.

Perhaps the sublime beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, along with the symbolism associated with bridges in general, is why this landmark has become the world’s number one suicide destination. More people take their lives at the Golden Gate Bridge than any other place in the world.

Dealing with suicidal thoughts and feelings is the shadowy work of psychotherapy. And like most dark and scary places, few ever wish to visit. But as a psychotherapist, facing suicide is not a matter of choice, but rather a matter of when. And if you are prudent, you stay mindful that during times of crises, anyone can get consumed by darkness.

Part of basic training as a psychotherapist involves learning how to deal with suicide — establishing if a person has a plan, a means to carry out the plan, a history of suicide attempts or suicidal ideation, a precipitating crisis, and equally important, a reason to live. However, gathering all this information is never enough to save a soul, although it can keep the heart beating a bit longer. Such information helps decide if emergency intervention is necessary, and can also point to deeper conflicts beyond the precipitating crisis. For some, thoughts of suicide can actually give a sense of safety — much like an emergency escape if suffering becomes unbearable.

I recently watched The Bridge, a documentary about suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge (preview below). Although the film came out in 2006, it is still relevant. In the United States, more people die from suicide than homicide, which has been true for some time now. In San Francisco, we’re still waiting for funding to put up a suicide-barrier on the Bridge. Furthermore, the act of suicide, and the impact it has on people, remains the same: feelings of confusion, anger, shame, guilt, longing, helplessness, loneliness, and even sometimes relief — what I imagine are similar to the feelings of the people they knew who committed suicide.

My gut ached after watching the documentary, which includes footage of people falling to their deaths. I have come to look at such strong somatic responses as indicators of both the impact of an event and the incapacity to make meaning of what transpired. I could not imagine what was going on in their minds when they jumped — or rather, I would not let myself imagine; it would have overwhelmed me. Watching footage of people taking their lives by suicide was traumatizing.

It wasn’t until I thought of the symbolism of bridges, and the cycles of integration and de-integration that are an inevitable part of growth, that I began to open to what I had watched. Falling apart is an aspect of growth and change (which I wrote about here). Although necessary, it’s rarely easy to go through. Furthermore, most of us at some point will have to reconcile how we perceive ourselves with how we are perceived and treated by others, and decide if what is witnessed actually matches what is felt inside. Such comparisons can cause acute states of aloneness.

Feeling unwelcome, unseen, unheard, confused about what direction to take, sick of the effort, exhausted by longing, and angry at the injustices of life can create a downward spiral that is profoundly isolating. A history of adverse childhood experiences or mental illness increases the likelihood of such feelings, but anyone can have them. I also think our postmodern world aggravates and amplifies suffering. Collectively, we are unmoored from recent eras and their sense of community. We are still trying to figure out what it means to be human in this latest round of globalization. And our current society does not foster the deep, reliable connections that can buoy our spirits during times of distress.

From trainings in sensorimotor psychotherapy, I learned to perceive suicide as a fight response, which differs from traditional thinking of suicide as a response to hopelessness and acute depression (which may also be present). This seems right to me, especially after watching footage of people jumping off the Bridge. Suicide is a fight. It’s an attempt to break through feeling trapped in one’s life, mind, and sometimes relationships. It’s a fight against perceived limits on growth and change. It’s a fight against suffering.

Suicide may also be a fight with overwhelming feelings. Or a fight with a perpetually critical inner voice. Or a fight with painful memories. Or a fight with the obsessive looping of one’s mind. Or a fight with circumstances. Sometimes it’s a fight with others, and then it’s often a fight against feeling oppressed or controlled. The list of reasons for suicide may be endless. But whatever the reason, suicide is a failure of the imagination, since only one solution is perceived: death.

Perhaps the appeal of the Golden Gate Bridge is that it symbolizes transforming suffering into something meaningful  — that the Bridge is somehow grand enough to both contain and transform the vast sense of aloneness within. And perhaps in every suicide attempt there is an unconscious wish for transformation, although channeled into a losing battle.

In self-defense training, I learned to get in the “donut” when in a fight, and physically close to the assailant. This is not easy to do. The instinct is to run from what is threatening and dangerous. But getting close gives the opportunity for greatest impact. The same principle applies when the assailant is suicide: you have to get really close to the person who is contemplating suicide. It’s not a time for polite distance or hesitation. You’ve got to get inside the imaginal “donut” that separates the person from humankind, as well as her or his desired sense of self, and try to stop the isolating spiral. Click here for a good resource on how to support someone who may be suicidal. And of course, it’s always a good idea to call 911 if a suicide attempt seems imminent.

I’ve put the Suicide Prevention Lifeline number below. Studies show phone therapy works. I’ve also volunteered on crisis lines, and saw firsthand the impact that a phone call with a trained counselor can make. It’s good to have this number around, kind of like knowing CPR. Human connection can save lives.

Screen Shot 2013-07-20 at 10.10.22 AM



Cirlot, J. E. 1971/2002. A dictionary of symbols. Translated by Jack Sage. Mineola, NY: Dover Publications, Inc.

Chevalier, Jean, and Alain Gheerbrant. 1996/1969. The Penguin Dictionary of Symbols. Translated by John Buchanan-Brown. London, UK: Penguin Books.

© 2013 Laura K Kerr, PhD. All rights reserved (applies to writing and photography).


  1. Jane says:

    Thanks for this article Laura. We lost a dear member of our community a couple of weeks ago to suicide. He jumped off the Golden Gate bridge. It is hard to be left behind. Frustrating to be left wishing we could have done something more to help him.
    In my own struggles with suicidal thoughts I was helped by James Hillman’s book Suicide and the Soul. He speaks so well of suicide as a metaphor for inner transformation, a soul’s longing that sometimes we mix up the “inner” need to transform with the “outer”. I don’t know if I am explaining myself well, but maybe you can understand the idea.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      I am so sorry for your loss. It’s heartbreaking. I haven’t read Hillman’s book, but it is on my reading list. I attended Pacifica Graduate Institute, and Hillman was often around — a bit of an icon. I learned at Pacifica to view suicide as “literalizing” internal conflicts and wishes. Unfortunately, knowing this can only help so much after you have lost someone to suicide. I hope you are finding support and time to grieve.

  2. Thanks for articulating the different meanings and motives pertaining to suicide–so right on and helpful. I also relate to the difficulty of overcoming one’s natural response to flee, on several levels. Love this.

  3. Deena Harbaugh says:

    “For some, thoughts of suicide can actually give a sense of safety — much like an emergency escape if suffering becomes unbearable.” This is so true with many who have suffered attachment wounds and other adverse childhood experiences. As usual, Dr. Kerr, your posts are so interesting, thoughtful, heartfelt, educational and I am always left feeling moved. You are so appreciated and admired by me. Thank you for sharing your emotional wisdom with all of us.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      Dear Deena, thank you so much for your kind words. I’m deeply flattered.

      If you ever get a chance to hear Janina Fisher lecture on suicide and trauma — or really any trauma topic — take it! She greatly widened my perspective on suicide, including how to support people for whom suicide has become a mental ‘safety net.’

      PS – I miss our Twitter chats!

  4. Kamilla Vaski says:

    When I have felt suicidal, I have been overwhelmed by my love for life and for everything that could be possible–that I feel I can’t ever attain.
    Seeing the Golden Gate Bridge reminds me of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. What a magnificent structure, awe-inspiring when you are actually there. In Vancouver we have a smaller version, the Lions Gate–spectacular in its own way, and regularly the cause of traffic tie-ups because of an ‘incident’ as it’s called on the radio traffic reports.

    • Laura K Kerr says:

      I wish you hadn’t ever felt suicidal. That can be such a scary place.

      Some cultures somaticize the symptoms of depression that might lead to suicide, feeling them in the gut or feeling a pressure in their chest — a heartache, if you will. But us westerners tend to beat ourselves up in our heads (as well as aching in our bodies).

      Auguste Comte, who is thought of as the founder of sociology, spent time in mental asylums due to bouts of insanity, but he eventually overcame them. He once called madness “excess subjectivity,” and I have always thought that was the best description of the rumination that can spiral into suicidal ideation — that is to say, the tendency to get stuck in thoughts and memories and images of the self, and most of them devaluing. It’s a very painful state, and I think made worse by conditions in our society, especially the emphasis on individualism as something attained largely through will power. This leaves too many of us blaming ourselves when our lives don’t seem to measure up.

      Too, too much pressure in this world today, and little direction for how to live peacefully within ourselves. However, I do think crisis lines provide a vital service. They have people trained in how to stop the spiraling of despair. And that’s so important, because it can be the first step in learning how not to put so much judgment on oneself.

      Thanks so much for sharing.

      • Kamilla Vaski says:

        Thank you for your kind response. In my current situation (looking after my elderly parents) I have had to deal with two siblings who are not interested in moving out of the abusive family structure we grew up in. I am fortunate to have one other sibling who is an ally, and has a great deal of understanding. Unfortunately we’re not living in the same place now.
        Very interesting to read about August Comte, who I know little about. How lucky for him not to have been “committed” for his entire life. He must have had some powerful allies who protected him from the vultures. Very hard to disbelieve the ugly, judgmental voice in your head when there is no one around to tell you: “You’re not crazy, evil, self-centered, etc.”

        • Laura K Kerr says:

          It’s so important to have allies! It’s great one of your siblings can provide support.

          I was assisting a sensorimotor training this past weekend, which focused on the beliefs we learn when young in our efforts to adapt to adverse childhood experiences. Such beliefs are the fodder for that judgmental voice.

          Paradoxically, the judgmental voice can start off as a way of protecting the Self from harm. If we think bad things about ourselves, we are less likely to let anyone get too close to us. Or the voice keeps us out of trouble. Yet as we get older, and learn new ways of self-protection (e.g., healthier boundaries, other methods of defense such as seeking help, fleeing, or fighting back), we don’t have to listen to the voice, or at least, take seriously its recriminations.

          Yet it takes effort and time to let it go, and it has a way of resurfacing when under stress or triggered.

          In Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, “Eat, Pray, Love,” she wrote about making her mind a safe harbor, scanning for negative/polluted boats on the horizon, and not letting them into the dock. I thought that was a brilliant metaphor — make your mind a safe harbor.

Comments are closed.