Eastbourne Borough Council is reviewing its anti-suicide strategies after a couple plunged to their deaths last week in an apparent suicide pact, bringing the total of deaths this year to 10. The normal total for a year is between 12 and 15, and the local authority is concerned that the figure is abnormally high.
Two weeks previously a father and his two children plunged to their deaths from the same cliff, shortly after another man had leapt to his death.
The council, which is wary of talking publicly in case it exacerbates the problem, is working in co-operation with the Samaritans and the police to try to reduce the beauty spot's draw. It has created mounds and trenches around the cliff area to stop people driving their cars over the edge, and installed a telephone box with the number of the Samaritans.
Local taxi drivers, if suspicious of a passenger's motives, use a code known only to them and the police with which they can forewarn police of a potential victim. The council employs two rangers to patrol the area, while staff at the nearby Countryside Centre and local bar are trained to look for signs that someone may be considering jumping.
Dr John Surtees, a long-time scholar of the area, whose book Beachy Head is published in September, says that the area's suicide rating is not so much due to a recent increase (there were 25 in 1990) as the fact that the Golden Gate Bridge has now got raised barriers at its sides.
He has several theories about why Beachy Head holds such a lure for the unhappy, despite the presence of equally "efficient" spots nearby. "I've compared it with Dover, the cliffs at Torbay and others and I don't think there's any doubt that ... the vast majority of these people are desperately ill with depression. They're looking for a successful method where they're not going to wake up in casualty having their stomach pumped."
A significant proportion, Dr Surtees said, surveyed the area beforehand. "The thing that finally determines them is accessibility. In summer there's a bus that takes them within 50 metres of the cliffs. Quite a few are elderly, or disabled; there was one chap with two false legs - you couldn't do that if you had to walk five miles over rough terrain."
Beachy Head has proven a lure for suicides since the 7th century, when St Wilfrid found that the locals were jumping off the cliff in despair after a three-year drought. People come from Scotland, mainland Europe and even New York to breathe their last at the picturesque tourist spot.
But Beachy Head is not the only tourist spot with a morbid attraction. The Samaritans have installed telephones on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, the Britannia Bridge, north Wales, and the Forth Road Bridge to try to stop people hurling themselves to death.
People who commit suicide are often said to choose a spot because it is beautiful and dramatic. At the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco there have been grisly "competitions" to become the 500th and subsequently the 1,000th person to jump. The California Highway Patrol tried to head off the race to be number 1,000 by stopping its count.
Meanwhile, Eastbourne Borough Council is left with a world reputation it does not want. Locals are quick to point out that a million people walk the Sussex Downs every year, with no motive other than to enjoy the scenic views. Said one: "More people probably throw themselves under London Underground trains every year. It's just because this is the one spot."
The Independent, 23rd April 2009
Editor's Note: Whatever situation you find yourself in, if you need to talk to someone in confidence, please contact the Samaritans. They won't judge, laugh or think you're silly. They will just offer an ear when you need it most.
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