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Fatal Bridges - continued

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Image: Nasima Nastoh holding a portrait of her teen son, who committed suicide
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By refusing to talk openly about teen suicide, we’re failing to save lives. Just ask Nasima Nastoh
A week before his death, Hamed had attended a suicide awareness talk at Enver Creek, given by a mother who had lost her son. In his note, Hamed wrote that he’d given his parents a “hint” when he mentioned that the speaker had said that suicidal people give hints.

“Do you think him telling me that they give hints was a hint?” asks Nasima Nastoh, piloting her black BMW down King George Highway toward a little Afghan bakery. “He said [in his note] ‘I’m crying inside.’ I didn’t know that he was. But I put on a happy face, too, even when I’m not happy.”

Nasima is 45 years old. Her children have grown up: Abby is 24 and David is 18. Hamed would be 23, but he’ll remain 14 forever; his framed Grade 9 photo is wrapped in a yellow towel on the back seat. “I worry for my other sons,” Nasima says. “I look normal, but I’m not normal—the anxiety, the guilt. Other teenagers have graduated, but not my son. Why? The why destroys you.”

After fleeing Afghanistan in 1984 during the Soviet-Afghan war, the Nastohs became an immigrant success story. “We went through the mountains, in the dark, leaving everything behind us to have a better life in Vancouver,” says Nasima, who grew up in a westernized family in Kabul. She was 20 years old and two months pregnant with Abby when she got to Canada. “We were so happy here.”

Hamed came along 14 months after Abby. “When I gave birth to Hamed, he was so beautiful. I looked into his big brown eyes and said, ‘How lucky I am: two sons, in a country that’s free of war and violence.’ ”

Soon after his birth, Nasima got a job at Immigration Canada and put her psychology degree to work, counselling refugees and immigrants. Karim, a professor of history and geography in Kabul, worked as a labourer for years before the Nastohs saved enough to buy a house in Abbotsford. In 1990 they remortgaged the house and bought a convenience store on Granville Street. Nasima continued her social work, and by the mid 1990s Karim had built a good business importing Persian carpets. They moved to the desirable neighbourhood of Brookside, in Surrey.

“Life was good,” Nasima recalls. “We went on vacations and had many good times. Hamed and I were so alike. He was a gentle, good-hearted person, always smiling. We did so much together: movies, trips to the library, a Spice Girls concert. We were so close.”

We pull in to an industrial park, but the bakery is closed. “Oh, they have such nice vegetarian dishes,” she says. “I’m so sorry. I don’t know where to go now.”

Experts say that 80 percent of those who die by suicide are clinically depressed and exhibit warning signs: low self-esteem, aggression, lethargy, addiction, recklessness, even inappropriate elation. Hamed never mentioned being bullied at school. He didn’t fight with his brothers. He ate well, and he always wanted to go to class.

But there may have been signs after all. Soon after Hamed’s death, another boy came to visit Nasima, saying he too had been targeted by bullies. “This boy said to me, ‘I’m not sleeping; I’m thinking, processing all these problems at school.’ ” The boy went straight home after school every day and climbed into bed until dinnertime. “That’s exactly what Hamed did,” Nasima recalls. “That boy saw Hamed in his coffin and he saw himself. It saved the boy’s life.”

It’s something she has heard many times since she started sharing her story: that by bringing the topic out of the darkness, we can save lives. When I tell Nasima about plans to install call boxes on the Lions Gate Bridge—a visible, public acknowledgment of bridge suicides—that are meant to slow people down just long enough for suicidal thoughts to subside, she responds: “It’s not enough. Maybe only a barrier could have stopped Hamed.”

Construction of suicide barriers on bridges is exactly what Kevin Hines advocates. Six months after Hamed died in the Fraser River, Hines jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge, which connects San Francisco to Marin County, into the waters of San Francisco Bay and became, at 19, one of only 26 known survivors of the 67-metre fall from North America’s most powerful bridge-suicide magnet. “As soon as I stepped off that ledge, I regretted it,” says the now-married, 26-year-old Hines, who works full-time as a suicide-prevention advocate and lives near Golden Gate Park. Hines was badly injured and calls his survival miraculous. Once his shattered vertebrae mended, he began his campaign for safety rails on the Golden Gate, a campaign he says he will devote the rest of his life to, hoping to prevent more “senseless” deaths. “In those terrifying milliseconds of free-falling,” he recalls, “I just wanted to live.”

Do barriers actually work? A long-term study conducted by Richard Seiden, professor emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley’s School of Public Health, tracked 515 people who’d been talked down from the Golden Gate. The study found that 26 years later, 94 percent of the 515 either were still alive or had died of natural causes. The study underscored the impulsivity of bridge jumpers and confirmed the efficacy of barriers as a means of prevention. When the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C., was retrofitted in 1986 to make jumping nearly impossible, another bridge a block away showed no increase in jumpers. In Toronto, in 2003, after much heated debate at city council, barriers were constructed on the Bloor Street viaduct, an alluring and easy bridge from which to jump, and there hasn’t been a suicide from it since. Extensive research has shown that restricting access to a single means of suicide—including bridges—reduces the overall death-by-suicide rate.
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