Inside the Mind of a Suicide Jumper

People who jump to their death may do it because it's convenient.


July 2, 2008 — -- Twenty-year-old European model Ruslana Korshunova and 44-year-old New York attending physician Douglas Meyer had little in common until the very moment they decided to take their own lives.

Both Korshunova and Meyer jumped out of Manhattan high-rises within days of each other earlier this week, the model plummeting from her ninth-floor apartment and the doctor from a window at the city hospital where he worked.

Their method of suicide is relatively unusual. The latest statistics recorded in 2005 show that firearms made up for 52.1 percent of all suicides, hanging for 22.2 percent and poison for 17.6 percent.

Jumping from tall buildings or high bridges seems to be reserved for those who are determined to die.

"People who think about committing suicide fear that they're going to hurt themselves but not kill themselves, and just make their situation worse," said Adam Kaplin, an assistant professor of psychiatry at Johns Hopkins Medical Institute, who estimates that only five to ten percent of all suicides are committed by jumping. "Jumping is sort of like using a gun – once you make that decision to [kill yourself], it's pretty much a done deal."

"When people don't have access to firearms and get it into their head that they don't think pills are going to work, they think there is something about the finality of [jumping] and think 'If I just do this it will be over,'" said Kaplin, who told that while men and women are equally likely to attempt suicide by jumping, women are less likely to die after the fall because of their lighter body weight.

How lethal the chosen method is, said Richard McKeon, a clinical psychologist at the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, is likely to reflect the person's degree of ambivalence about dying.

"Many people who die by suicide, as best we can determine, may have had some level of ambivalence right up until that final moment," said McKeon. "If you use a less lethal means like an overdose, there is still a possibility of taking it back [by calling for help]."

"But with a firearm, once someone pulls the trigger the likelihood that they'll be mortally wounded is high," added McKeon. "Similarly, jumping off a bridge or a high story of a skyscraper has a high likelihood of death."

And while jumping is considered to be one of the more lethal ways of committing suicide – like guns, there is not a large margin of error in suicide attempts by these means -- Madelyn Gould, a clinical psychologist and a suicide expert, told that jumping from buildings is often chosen by suicidal people simply as a matter of convenience.

"In New York City, jumping is certainly more common than in other places because we have high buildings," said Gould. "Usually the method is chosen because it's accessible."

Just like people are more likely to commit suicide in their homes simply because of the vast amount of time they spend there, Gould said that accessibility to firearms and prescription drugs also influences how a person will try to take his or her own life.

"The accessibility of the method is likely the most significant factor [that influences a person choice], so that if someone has a firearm in the home there may be a greater likelihood of them using it," said SAMHSA's McKeon. "If they have medication that's prescribed to them they may be more likely to use that."

"So in general, for people who live in areas with bridges or tall buildings, [jumping] is going to be the accessible and lethal means for them," added McKeon.

With the suicides of the model and the doctor occurring in such a short time span and in the same way, psychologist Gould told that it's quite possible the model's decision to jump was contagious.

"Suicide contagion or imitation or influence is really a phenomenon," said Gould. "There are a lot of vulnerable people and if they are really thinking about suicide they could start to identify with a method, and we could see a cluster."

"[The doctor] could think that the model definitely accomplished what she was trying to accomplish and then that method could be seen as an option for him, even if he hadn't readily thought about it before," said Gould, who said this sort of copycat syndrome isn't seen in people who are not already severely depressed or contemplating suicide, and usually only affects those who have already mapped out a plan for their death.

Glorification of places known for jumpers – the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, for one – also adds to the appeal of the method, according to Kaplin.

"Sometimes people are so miserable that when they hear about a suicide 'working,' it puts that certain method in their mind," said Kaplin. "[These people] were already suicidal but they hadn't necessarily committed to a way."

Kaplin added that most jumpers have already scouted out the place where they will jump from before actually jumping.

"My guess is that [Korshunova] had sat on that balcony many times before in despair," said Kaplin, who has not treated the model or the doctor. "It's a sort of private, silent suffering."

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