Texting for Help: Golden Gate Bridge Tries New Suicide Prevention Tool

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Kymberlyrenee and Manuel Gamboa still keep their son Kyle's cellphone charged. Three years after his death, his friends still text. (Stephanie Martin Taylor/KQED)

Kyle Gamboa's iPhone 5S still sits, fully charged, next to his parents' living room sofa. Every few months, the phone lights up with a text from one of his friends.

"I love you brother," reads one message, dated June 2, 2016. "I really don't know what happened. I miss you. I wish you were here."

It's been more than three years since the outgoing, athletic 18-year old from Fair Oaks leaped to his death from the Golden Gate Bridge. His parents, Manuel and Kymberlyrenee Gamboa, are still trying to understand why. Whatever the reason, the text messages help remind the Gamboas that Kyle is still loved by his many friends.

"It helps us to heal," says Kymberlyrenee. "And, you know, I think it helps his friends to heal."

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Kyle's father agrees. "You know, texting and all the social media stuff, it's such a part of their life -- this is normal for them to do," he says. "Even though they know Kyle is gone, they know his phone is still on."

One of crisis counseling signs on the Golden Gate Bridge.
One of crisis counseling signs on the Golden Gate Bridge. (Stephanie Martin Taylor/KQED)

'Startling' Increase in Young People Considering Suicide at the Bridge

At a Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors meeting in August, officials revealed an alarming statistic: The number of people under the age of 25 showing up at the bridge intending to commit suicide has increased fivefold since 2000. Bridge and California Highway Patrol officers stop most of them, but they still need more help. On average, two to three people jump each month. The majority of the suicides are people under the age of 35.

To address the issue, they announced another development: All along the bridge now, there are new blue-and-white signs urging people in crisis to text GGB to the number 741741. The idea is to connect young people -- or anyone who needs help -- to counselors who can calm them down, determine their location and dispatch a patrol officer who can get them to safety.

The bridge district has tried to secure funding for a "safety net" to prevent suicides, but installation has met repeated delays.

New Text Hotline Rolled Out

The counselors are part of a national network called Crisis Text Line. Ellen Kaster, 24, is one of its trained volunteers. On a recent evening in San Francisco, she and her supervisor -- a social worker -- hunched over their laptops, answering texts from around the nation.

"Right now I have a texter who has been struggling with drug addiction and has gone through phases of being clean and relapsing," Kaster explains.

The young man tells her he's cutting himself with a knife and is feeling suicidal. This is a "code orange," which means Kaster's supervisor will monitor the conversation, and they'll call the police if the suicide threats intensify. Fortunately, the texter agrees to put the knife in a drawer, and he calms down.

Most of the text conversations last about an hour, Kaster says, which may seem strange to older generations. But it's pretty normal for young people to communicate this way, she says, especially when they're emotional.

"It can feel very vulnerable ... to actually dial a real phone and talk to somebody," Kaster says. "There's something very impersonal about text that's very natural."

'These Could Be Our Children'

Inside the Golden Gate Bridge dispatch center, Bridge Patrol Capt. Lisa Locati thumbs through a binder full of photos of young people, reading off their ages.

"Sixteen, 22, 25 ... the ages here are just startling," she says.

This is the Bridge Patrol's "Be on the Lookout" book. It's filled with printouts of Facebook pages. When concerned friends and family call because they fear a loved one has headed to the bridge to commit suicide, Locati's team, along with the California Highway Patrol, tries to find them before it's too late. The Facebook photos help them pick out faces on the crowded sidewalk, and they provide personal details that can help with a rescue.

"You want so much to make the connection and convince this person that dying is not the answer," Locati says.

What really bothers Locati is how many are just kids, with little perspective on life.

"They got a bad grade in class. They broke up with a boyfriend or girlfriend. There's a lot of bullying going on in the age group, and that can be devastating to some," she says. "It's very exhausting. These could be our children."

The Golden Gate Bridge District has recorded more than 120 successful suicide interventions so far this year. But Locati says she could definitely use more staff -- there can be thousands of people on the bridge at one time, and she currently oversees 31 people. In the meantime, she hopes the text line will help them make even more interventions.

"When Crisis Text Line approached us, they had already had -- without any advertising -- texting conversations with people that have mentioned coming to the bridge to commit suicide," Locati says.

"Before we formed the partnership, we already had 94 conversations in which people have mentioned the Golden Gate Bridge," confirms Libby Craig, Bay Area director of Crisis Text Line. "And we do have stories of people who were at the ledge and were back in their homes by the end of a conversation."

Back at the Gamboas' home, Kymberlyrenee says she doesn't know whether her son, Kyle, would have texted the hotline had the signs been posted the day he jumped. But he was on his phone that morning.

"His last contact was on Facebook, and he texted," she says.

She hopes if Kyle's friends will text a phone he hasn't answered in three years, maybe kids on the bridge will text for help -- and someone will answer.

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Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is at risk for suicide, please seek help.
For the Crisis Text Line in the Bay Area: Text BAY to 741741
For the Crisis Text Line Nationwide: Text HELLO to 741741
For the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: Call 1-800-273-8233