He was about to attempt suicide, but I ignored him

He was sitting on top of the Hennepin Ave Bridge railing, straddling it. His backpack was resting on the ground below.

It was January 5th, 2016 and just 22 degrees outside. A frigid Mississippi River below.

I was walking to NE Minneapolis to meet co-workers for lunch. Living nearby, I have crossed this bridge hundreds of times. But I have never seen anyone sit on the railing. It did not seem right, and my gut told me something was wrong. Police sirens blared behind me.

I slowed down while walking closer to the young man. Thinking, “I should ask him if he is okay.” But I didn’t. I kept walking. I told myself it was “normal.”

My thoughts continued to race, knowing something was wrong, but trying to make it normal, “He is just taking a break and catching a unique view of the city.” I take 20 more steps and looked back. Relieved, the police pull up. The sirens were for him. He moves from the railing to the platform below, threatening to jump.

I watched from a distance for 5 minutes as he alternated between talking to the police, pacing, and literally stepping to the edge of his existence. Inside I say, “don’t jump, don’t jump, please don’t jump!” Eventually I continue my walk to lunch, not seeing the end of this saga.

Reflecting back on this experience, I concluded that actions and expressions of kindness are ALWAYS better than no action at all. Especially during stressful moments. A smile, hello, “how are you doing?” or even a “Are you hungry? I’d like to buy you lunch.” are simple, worthwhile efforts. I’m not suggesting they would have made a difference in this case, but that gestures like this are always better than nothing at all. I pledge to keep this top of mind from this point forward. And I feel awful for doing nothing during a terrible moment of this man’s life.

Why didn’t I say anything? Why did I make this moment seem normal, even though danger for this man was clearly present?

The Normalcy Bias – A mental state people enter when facing a disaster, where they underestimate the possibility of something bad happening.

In short, during traumatic events the normalcy bias makes us think everything is okay and will return to normal. The normalcy bias can cost people their lives.

This experience made me think about how the normalcy bias hurts us on a daily basis.

For example:

  • Remaining in abusive relationships, believing things will soon return to “normal.”
  • Not getting help for anxiety & depression, because we will feel “normal” again soon.
  • Not saving or preparing financially
  • Staying at a miserable job because it is “normal” for people to hate their jobs.
  • Staying silent when we witness something unjust, unethical, or uncomfortable.

Inaction during uncomfortable moments has a big cost. Sometimes, it literally means life. Other times it sacrifices our health, personal growth, and happiness.

Take a close look at what you are calling “normal” in your life. Where do you need to act, speak up, make a change, or get help? Do it now. Fight the normalcy bias. It means life.

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P.S. and most important, if you are experiencing depression, have considered suicide, or are just feeling down, here are some places that help (readers, PLEASE add more resources in the comment section below):

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