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Why A Man Jumped Off A Bridge In His Hospital Gown Right After Being Discharged From A NY Emergency Room

Photo: Matthew D. Wilson / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 2.5
man jumps off bridge in hospital gown after being discharged from the emergency room

Balloons are held to the spot where a man jumped to his death on Veterans Memorial Bridge in Rochester, NY. The man’s identity is being protected in order to spare the family, though other details of the incident are known. 

Identified only as “Chris,” the man was seen jumping into the Genesee River shortly being shuttled to his apartment from the hospital. He was carrying his clothes in a plastic bag. A witness called police and watched in horror as Chris went over the bridge. 

Why did Chris die by suicide after being discharged from the emergency room? 

Chris was having a mental health crisis, and, as many similar situations in New York state lead to a person being carted off to the ER, so did this one.

After it was deemed that he was medically sound and posed no danger to himself or others, he was set free, only to go on to pose a danger to himself by leaping off of Veterans Memorial Bridge. 

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Situations like these are not uncommon across the U.S.

While they don’t always lead to death by suicide, they can create endless cycles of repeat behavior, with limited help in sight. 

Can the ER help people having a mental health crisis? 

It varies by state, but in many cases someone can be detained for a short period if their behavior is extreme and requires it.

Much like in Chris’s case though, unless it’s determined that you pose a grave danger, then there isn’t much that mental health services at an emergency clinic or hospital floor can do. 

The average length of an emergency hold is somewhere between three and five days. After that, if someone hasn’t said the magic words, then they’re off again into the world. The magic words being something along the lines of admitting to posing a danger to themselves or others. 

People can be held for longer periods of time if they do make such an admission, but that often requires permission from a judge, and usually medical personnel have to make an appeal. 

Civil commitment can occur where someone is evaluated in a mental health facility against their will and given a proper diagnosis and treatment. This is probably what most people think of when they think about emergency mental health services at all. 

How many people are held involuntarily due to their mental health? 

However, no one has ever properly estimated the number of people who are undergoing involuntary mental health care at any given time.

One estimate proposes that possibly a million people are detained and evaluated each year. But, because of the risk to personal identification, and substandard accounting, there’s not reliable tracking that covers the entire U.S. population. 

This is problematic for a number of reasons, not the least of which is how damaging it can be for those whose civil rights and liberties are being stripped away at the time of commitment. A lack of statistics can amount to a lack of accountability. 

It’s also difficult to completely certify the necessity of taking so severe a step, and researchers have found that so far there’s no universal method of determining when someone should be held against their will or set free. 

To complicate matters even further, in cases where individuals may be having a mental health episode and may pose a real danger, oftentimes family, friends, or witnesses will call the police to respond to the incident. Without real training, and sometimes even despite mental health training, police will cause more harm than good. 

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Could the "defund the police" movement lead to funding more effective mental health approaches?

Many proponents of the defund movement are calling for resources to be allocated to more appropriate places, like social workers and peer mentors who possess real training and resources to effect change in people who are suffering from mental health issues. 

It’s unlikely that even in a perfect system that each and every person struggling with suicidal ideation will find the help they need, but it’s more likely with additional mental health resources and funding that a higher rate of people will be empowered to manage their condition. 

If involuntary holds are problematic from the point of view of civil liberties, then alternatives could be funded instead. What if, instead of being set free to enter the world unaccompanied, Chris had been escorted home by a mental health professional? What if he was given regular check-ins? What progress could he have made if someone was there to help, and manage his transition back into the world following a traumatic event that electrified his current emotional state? 

Even before 2020, mental health issues were on the rise. We’re now seeing skyrocketing rates of suicidal ideation, anxiety, depression, and more. The issue is only compounded by a lack of reliable insurance in many cases, and a lack of proper care and treatment. 

Even when people with acute instances of mental health challenges are held against their will and evaluated, there’s only so much that our current system can do. 

And so, occasionally, perhaps more often than we know since the numbers aren’t available, you’ll find someone like Chris, unable to find help, at wit’s end, with nowhere else to turn.

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Kevin Lankes, MFA, is an editor and author. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Here Comes Everyone, Pigeon Pages, Owl Hollow Press, The Huffington Post, The Riverdale Press, and more.