A view of Highway 96 from the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge/ Photo by Brooke Wanser.
By BROOKE WANSER
WARNING: This article contains and discusses information about suicide.
Though Williamson County Sheriff Jeff Long had long known suicide at the Natchez Trace Bridge to be a problem, it was only after he was elected as sheriff in 2008 that he began to understand the full extent of the issue.
Long, who has been involved in law enforcement in Franklin for 43 years, said he has become exhausted by the emotional toll of at least 30 completed and many attempted suicides from the bridge.
“It’s gotten so bad that when we have a missing person call, we immediately go to the bridge,” he said.
As the first responders, Long said he and his deputies are usually called out by dispatch. Because the bridge is under the purview of the National Park Service, once park rangers can get there, they take over.
“It may be the local officer who’s close by, or it may be a two-hour wait,” Long said.
The Natchez Trace Parkway National Park is headquartered in Tupelo, Mississippi, though rangers who respond to incidents at the bridge are often coming from stations in Hohenwald, Tennessee, about 55 miles southwest of Franklin, or in Leiper’s Fork.
National Park Service Chief Ranger Sarah Davis said the bridge is in the northern district of the park. The Natchez Trace Parkway has three districts, each 144 miles long.
Davis, who has worked with the National Park Service since 1996, said incidents are initially reported to the Williamson County 911 center, which dispatches the closest ranger.
Long said a new memorandum of understanding, issued at the beginning of 2017 between the National Park Service and the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department, allows his men to respond immediately to the scene.
With five rangers in the district on duty at a time, Davis said it could often be a long time before the National Park Service can investigate.
“Unfortunately, we only have so many rangers, and closest may be in Alabama,” she said.
Long said he believed there were nearly as many attempted suicides as completed ones; the Williamson County Sheriff’s Department records show at least 15 attempted suicides from the bridge from 2005 to 2017.
In June of 2017, Deputy Jim Zahn was honored for his actions in reasoning with a man who was planning on jumping from the bridge
On that morning, at 8:30 a.m., Zahn pulled up to the side of the bridge. A man in his late twenties turned around, crying.
“I said, ‘Is everything all right?’” Zahn related.
“He was like, ‘I’m just having a bad morning,’”
Zahn convinced the man to walk back toward where he had parked his car, then listened as the man opened up about his struggles.
“I asked him if he was intending on doing it [jumping] and he said he was,” Zahn said. “I asked him if he wanted to get some help.”
Zahn called an ambulance, and the man left inside the emergency vehicle.
He’s been on a few calls where someone was talked down from the edge of the bridge, and he’s been to the scene of a few suicides.
“I make it a point to go there [the bridge] when I’m in that zone,” Zahn said. “You never know.”
The suicide rate in Tennessee remains above the national average, and recent figures from 2016 showed incidences rising. The Tennessee Highway Patrol recently completed training its officers in suicide prevention techniques.
Long said he has begun to worry for the mental health of his officers who respond to suicide calls from the bridge.
“This is not easy for them,” he said. “Because it’s so regular, we’re even talking about having them go through decompression with somebody after the event. They’ll talk to our chaplain, but it’s voluntary.”
Zahn said having an emotional debrief option might help, but he said some of the officers were so “type A” they might not take advantage of it.
“Sometimes it builds up,” Zahn admitted. “But the easiest way to deal with that is to talk about it.”
Davis said the National Park Service has felt the weight of the deaths, too. They are adding a ranger to the zone, in addition to a phone line, which has been long in the making.
Many scoffed when signs with the National Suicide Hotline number went up in October of 2010, but Davis said it seemed to work: “We had this big long break, that’s when the sign went up.”
Davis’ assertion appears correct: all attainable records show no suicides between August 2, 2010 until Sept. 2, 2013.
“We want it to stop,” she said. “It’s hard on our staff. It’s hard on Williamson County staff. We feel like we’re caught.”
In conversation, Zahn struggles with the idea of suicide. “I think anybody that’s going there to jump off that bridge is going to do it,” he says.
Upon further reflection, he speaks with a sense of hope for those struggling with depression so severely they are considering ending their lives.
“I wanna say that there are things you can do to talk people down,” he said. “I believe it.”
This is the third in a series of four stories on suicides in Williamson County from the Natchez Trace Bridge. Tomorrow, the Home Page will release the final story, which expounds upon possible solutions from law enforcement and local government.
Warning signs of suicide:
- Talking about wanting to die
- Looking for a way to kill oneself
- Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
- Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
- Talking about being a burden to others
- Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
- Acting anxious, agitated, or recklessly
- Sleeping too little or too much
- Withdrawing or feeling isolated
- Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
- Displaying extreme mood swings
What to do:
- Do not leave the person alone
- Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
- Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
- Take the person to an emergency room, or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
A free, 24/7 confidential service that can provide people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress, or those around them, with support, information, and local resources.