Valentine's Day for many is all about heart-shaped boxes of chocolate or jewelry, Hallmark cards filled with sweet, sentimental poems and spending an evening out with that special someone.
But a day that is for many a chance to celebrate love and affection is for others a difficult one that can bring on feelings of loneliness, isolation and despair. And for some, the dark impact is far greater, giving rise to suicidal thoughts that draw them to the Golden Gate Bridge -- an iconic Bay Area landmark known for its extraordinary beauty, engineering and breathtaking views but has also become known as a top suicide destination in the world.
It is there where a group of some 200 volunteers spend holidays keeping an eye out for people who come to the Golden Gate intending to jump to their death. These volunteers are The Bridgewatch Angels, an organization founded by Pleasanton resident Mia Munayer, a lieutenant in the Pleasanton Police Department.
The mission of The Bridgewatch Angels is to patrol the Golden Gate Bridge on "high suicide-risk" holidays such as Valentine's Day in order to provide a positive and uplifting presence on the bridge and to offer support for people who appear to be at risk. The Bridgewatch Angels help provide an extra layer of protection and a source of assistance to police who patrol the bridge heavily year-round.
Munayer said she first became interested in suicide prevention at the bridge in 2010 after participating in crisis intervention training as part of her job as a police officer. She watched excerpts from "The Bridge," a documentary film about numerous Golden Gate Bridge suicides. She said she was shocked to learn that almost every week, at least one person dies by suicide by jumping from the bridge, and that at least two to three suicide interventions occur each day.
Upon discovering these statistics and that so many of the people who die by suicide or attempt it are teens, Munayer said she felt compelled to address the problem during her off-duty time.
Through her extensive efforts, a group of 175 to 200 dedicated volunteers now spend every "major suicide-risk" holiday (Valentine's Day, Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve/Day, New Year's Eve/Day and Memorial Day) helping to save lives on the Golden Gate Bridge. Munayer describes these volunteers as "selfless individuals who believe compassion is the greatest gift they can give on these holidays."
Munayer and other suicide prevention specialists train the volunteers immediately beforehand to recognize the warning signs of people who may be "at risk," how to assess behaviors they witness on the bridge, what to say to someone who is suicidal, and most importantly, safety protocol. Munayer and her trainers also encourage the volunteers to simply trust their own instincts and to not be afraid to say, "Hello!"
"Such a simple gesture can be very impactful for those who are feeling alone, isolated and uncared for because people who come to the bridge don't actually want to die. They simply want to end their pain. There is a difference, and this is why human connection has the power to save lives," Munayer said.
The mandatory orientations take place in front of The San Francisco Welcome Center at the southern end of the bridge. Munayer said she always ensures that the first people to speak at these orientations are families who have a child that died by suicide by jumping from the bridge.
Family members usually bring a framed photo and talk about their child's life and the events which preceded their death. They also express sincere appreciation to the volunteers for their presence on the bridge.
While hearing from these families is sobering, it gets the volunteers to quickly focus on the important impact they will be having during the next four hours in terms of preventing other families from having to endure the same kind of anguish.
Mark and Dayna Whitmer's son Matthew died by suicide by jumping off the bridge in 2007 when he was 20 years old. They said they felt honored when Munayer asked them to address the volunteers at the 2017 New Year's Day orientation.
Dayna Whitmer described her experience in speaking to the Angels as being very moving for herself and her husband because they felt so much support from the volunteers and because it was so meaningful to know that so many people cared enough about others to spend their valuable time patrolling the bridge.
"It makes such a difference in the world," Whitmer said.
She added that one of the best accomplishments of The Bridgewatch Angels is that it shows how society's views toward suicide are changing; that through compassion and understanding, the stigma attached to talking about suicide is fading.
Whitmer said she feels this growing de-stigmatization enables people to talk much more freely and openly about mental health issues and suicide -- as opposed to having to whisper about them behind closed doors -- and that the ability to do this facilitates people at risk being able to get the help they need.
Casey Brooks, the 17 year-old daughter of John and Erika Brooks, died by suicide at the bridge in 2008. Like the Whitmers, the Brookses also spoke to the Angels during an orientation, in order to honor the memory of their daughter and to show their support for the volunteers. The Bridgewatch Angels dedicated that Christmas Eve Bridgewatch to young Casey.
When the volunteers head out to patrol the bridge after orientation and training, they greet everyone on the span with a smile, and engage with those who are walking alone, displaying negative body posture or linger mid-span.
What started as a small group of off-duty law enforcement officers has grown into a large force of individual volunteers who come from all walks of life and backgrounds, and from nonprofit, government, faith-based, and private sector organizations.
Martha Jensen, a local resident who will be volunteering with The Bridgewatch Angels on Valentine's Day, thinks it is a perfect way to spend the day, saying, "My greatest joy in life comes from helping others."
"If I can help even just one person, whatever efforts I make on the bridge will be worthwhile," Jensen added.
Holly Wolff, another Pleasanton resident who will be heading into San Francisco to volunteer as a Bridgewatch Angel on Valentine's Day, is similarly motivated by a desire to help others. Wolff, who owns a pet-sitting service in town, said, "I spend a lot of time walking dogs outdoors, and that is great. But to have the opportunity to spend a day outdoors on the Golden Gate Bridge, helping other people, well that is truly an empowering gift."
Munayer believes strongly that The Bridgewatch Angels make a significant impact in preventing Golden Gate Bridge suicides.
During Bridgewatch events, Munayer said she is always approached by one or more bridge walkers who tell her that they chose, after interacting with Bridgewatch volunteers, to abandon their plan to attempt suicide on the bridge. And after going on to receive professional treatment, some of these people even feel strong enough to become Bridgewatch volunteers themselves.
Like the Brooks and Whitmer families who have spoken at Bridgewatch volunteer orientations, some of Bridgewatch Angels' other volunteers are "suicide survivors," a term used to describe people who have a family member or friend who died by suicide. People who survive suicide attempts are referred to as "attempt survivors."
Suicide can be especially difficult for suicide survivors, as they see it as a senseless death that could possibly have been prevented. Becoming a Bridgewatch Angel can be healing for such survivors and can empower them to go on with their own lives in a positive and productive way, they say.
During her years in law enforcement, Munayer said she has responded to countless suicides and has personally witnessed the horrific aftermath for the family members, especially the parents, who grieve a terrible loss that is complicated by the stigma attached to suicidal deaths.
It is for this reason that she feels so much empathy toward the survivor families, and considers them to be the inspiration that drives her to keep growing The Bridgewatch Angels into an even larger organization, she said. Munayer feels a kinship with these people, and often remains in touch with them throughout the year.
Her ultimate goal is to prevent as many avoidable deaths as possible, and to protect as many families as possible from having to endure the same kind of anguish and sorrow these survivors suffer.
The number of suicides and attempted suicides on the Golden Gate Bridge each year is significant. Since being built in 1937, nearly 2,000 people, including children, have leaped to their death.
In 2016, there were 39 confirmed suicides (which reflects only the number of bodies found; many are never recovered) and 184 successful interventions by the park district police, California Highway Patrol, the Bridgewatch Angels or others.
It is because of these statistics that the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, which owns and operates the bridge, recently decided to install a steel mesh suicide-prevention net. Construction is expected to start in 2017. The Whitmers are part of a group that advocated for this net, and they were instrumental in the district's decision.
Anyone interested in becoming a volunteer for The Bridgewatch Angels can visit its Facebook page or contact the organization at [email protected]
Anyone experiencing suicidal thoughts or seeking help for a loved one can contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This line is available 24 hours per day and provides free and confidential support for people in distress.
Editor's note: Nancy Davis Lewis is a Pleasanton resident and a regular contributor to the Pleasanton Weekly, preparing the Streetwise column with her daughter, Jenny Lyness. She is set to volunteer with The Bridgewatch Angels on the Golden Gate Bridge next week on Valentine's Day.