Prompted by a screening of Eric Steel’s 2006 documentary The Bridge, about those who choose to end their lives at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, the CinePunked team engage in a frank and sensitive panel discussion examining the issues raised by the film, in particular the wider topic of suicide and mental health struggles.
For the conversation, Robert JE Simpson and Dr Rachael Kelly are joined by Stuart McChesney – a volunteer with the Community Rescue Service in NI. Listener discretion is advised.
Sleeve notes are below.
With Robert JE Simpson, Dr Rachael Kelly and Stuart McChesney.
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Back in August 2019 we set about the first in a series of events geared around issues of mental health, running with our partners at Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast. We planned a screening of Eric Steel’s chilling and powerful documentary The Bridge, about those who choose to end their lives at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. This was to be followed by a panel discussion inspired by the themes of the films, which was to be recorded. It is this resulting conversation which features in the podcast.
During the episode you can probably detect my frustration. In spite of our attempts, the screening itself was a wash-out. Possibly as a result of the way we tried marketing it (more on that later), we ended up without the audience we hoped for. From private conversations, it seems that many were too scared to come face to face with the issue of suicide. Several supportive friends told me they’d be there were it not for their own grief still being raw after experiencing suicide within their own circles.
Just that word ‘suicide’ scares people.
And so, on a Sunday night in September, we were on stage, faced with a room of people I had gone to lengths to gather together to support our audience. Therapists and grief counsellors and our tech team. But not the paying public.
Its not done to talk about these things, when a show doesn’t work out, but I was upset. I’d invested a heap of my time and my emotion into organising the event, and it had fallen apart at the final hurdle. We would have called off the entire thing in all honesty, but we’d agreed to do the recording for the podcast and so proceeded with that. Not least because we’d very generously been offered support by the specialists that now made up our audience, and because the emotion we’d had to channel getting onto that stage needed an outlet.
I hope that while the evening didn’t go to plan, that this podcast recording does find an audience. I’d certainly be up for discussing the film and themes again if someone else wishes us to join them.
As I mention during the recording, the whole piece was formed from a place of pain.
I found myself loosing two friends within a year to suicide. And then in April 2019 (just a few weeks after sending off the second of those friends) on the day before my birthday, I was in San Francisco, walking across the Golden Gate Bridge, when a memory of Eric Steel’s documentary The Bridge, came into my head. And something solid cemented – a desire to have a conversation around the subject – to try and break the taboo a little, and for me at least, to help something positive come out of personal loss.
I re-watched the film and was struck by its power, the stories and the humanising these people who might otherwise be anonymous in the eyes of the media. I found it helping me address my own complicated grief, but also reflecting back my own mental health struggles. I chatted with the rest of the team, and hoped that it might allow us the space to focus.
For the panel, Rachael and I knew we’d be able to draw on our personal experiences, though with a certain amount of reservation around the potential for triggering our own traumas. We didn’t want it to be a self-serving navel-gazing exercise, and so I sought out my friend Stuart McChesney who worked as a volunteer for the Community Rescue Service in Northern Ireland. He was someone who, as you’ll hear, had his own direct experiences of mental health issues, but also importantly was on the front line of assistance for those in crisis, and one of those who helps find and bring back those who choose suicide.
By coincidence, we ended up running the conversation just a few days after the US National Suicide Prevention Week, and the global Suicide Prevention Day – events that aim to alert the population to the signs of suicide, and general awareness of the issue.
Sitting in a room of like-minded individuals talking about something that was still raw with me, while the audience we needed to engage with stayed away, really hurt. I ended up feeling like we’d failed in our endeavours. But we’ve repeatedly found playing to the Belfast audience can be unpredictable, in a way that running in London or San Francisco probably wouldn’t be.
The conversation uses The Bridge simply as – if you’ll allow the turn of phrase – a jumping-off point for the wider discussion around mental health and suicide awareness. Its a more complicated discussion than simply identifying tell-tale signs. Its about experience, about feeling, and about our lived experiences of depression, and mental health crisis.
We’re left with questions about the state of mental health provision in the UK, about the emphasis on self-care. And importantly, we also benefit from hearing directly about how the work has affected Stuart, and what its like for those who work in the services to help recover the deceased in search and rescue, and the ambulance service.
I honestly feel this is a strong discussion, handled delicately and sensitively, and one I’m proud of facilitating.
The taboos around these conversations are still felt. In the two and half years since we recorded this, I have lost further friends to suicide, and am still trying to process all of those losses. And yet, those conversations are hard to broach – it seems that most people still don’t know how to talk about the impact, the realities, the complex feelings that emerge.
For us, that fear marred our marketing – we had to provide content warnings for fear of upsetting viewers. We had to make abundantly clear that we had support on hand for fear of criticism that we were in fact simply trying to exploit, rather than processing grief. And yet, in doing this, we flagged up the risks to such an extent that we were essentially waving red flags that drove people away. We faced similar issues with our events on mental health and comedy, where perceived sensitivities became obstacles to getting audiences in.
Where do we go from here as people? How do we address the questions if we aren’t allowed to talk about them? Even putting the podcast together, I fear that the flag we’ve put on the episode start is enough to turn away the very people who might actually benefit from the conversation. But here it is, doing what we always hoped CinePunked would do, utilising film to facilitate complex and difficult conversations.
At some point I’d like to chat to Eric Steel about the film – I’d hoped this event might have offered the opportunity, but in the disappointment of the night I put it on hold.
For those interested in the film that sparked the panel, the origianal New Yorker article on the jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge that inspired Eric’s film is available here: https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2003/10/13/jumpers
Also, I’d strongly recommend viewing The Bridge. You can find more about Eric’s film, and rent/buy it via http://www.thebridge-themovie.com
The CinePunked theme music is ‘Riding the Synth‘ – © 2020, Ben Blademan Simpson. Used with permission.
Episode recorded at the Crescent Arts Centre, Belfast on 15 September 2019.
On a technical note – we were without Ben for this event in the tech chair, and we had a number of issues with the microphones (especially Rachael’s mic) which I have been unable to clean up entirely in the edit. I hope the interference doesn’t distract too much.
Engineered and edited by Robert JE Simpson. First published on 22 March 2022.