For an overwhelming majority of visitors, national parks offer spectacular vistas that provide surroundings perfect for enjoyment, contemplation, and relaxation. For a small, yet significant, number, though, the parks are where they decide to die.
As part of a study into suicide trends nationally, the National Park Service worked with the Centers for Disease Control to analyze suicides and attempted suicides in the national parks with hopes of developing training and resources that possibly could reduce the numbers.
From 2003 through 2009, for instance, 286 "suicide events" -- an average of 41 per year -- were reported in 84 units of the National Park System. Of those, 68 percent, or 194, resulted in deaths.
"The two most commonly used methods were firearms and falls," notes a report published last week in the CDC's Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report. "Consistent with national patterns, 83 percent of suicides were among males."
Other findings gleaned from Park Service incident reports included:
* Approximately 19% of the events involved a fall (typically a jump from a cliff or bridge), and 6% were transportation related (e.g., driving over a cliff). In contrast, 2% of all suicides nationally were fall related, and <1% were transportation related (1).
* The mean age of persons who committed or attempted suicide in the parks was 43 years (range: 16--84 years).
* The highest number of suicides occurred in June (22), August (21), and January (21). The highest number of attempted suicides occurred in July (17), followed by May (11).
* The six most commonly reported suicide methods overall were firearm (33%), fall (19%), suffocation (9%), poisoning (7%), cut/pierce (6%), and transportation (6%). The three most commonly reported methods for males were firearm (36%), fall (19%), and suffocation (10%), and for females they were firearm (21%), fall (19%), and poisoning (16%).
"Although the total number of deaths attributed to suicide that occurred in national parks during 2003--2009 is small, each death represents a preventable event in a public place," note the authors. "Suicides also can represent a major cost burden for the parks, in one case reaching nearly $200,000 because of the resources and time required to conduct a search for a missing person."
In an effort to reduce suicides in the parks, the authors suggest a multifaceted approach, "including enhanced training for park employees, site-specific barriers, and collaboration with communities."
"Park rangers have intervened to prevent suicides; however, their ability to dissuade suicidal visitors is limited. Training programs for park rangers should consider factors such as awareness of and ability to connect to local community prevention programs for information and guidance, and the typically short duration that park rangers interact with visitors," the report says. "In addition, park rangers cover considerable territory, and the ratio of park visitors per park ranger is high. Enhanced training that focuses on the ability to recognize the signs and symptoms of suicidal behavior, provides strategies for reaching out to persons with problems, and improves the understanding of available treatment might prove useful."
The report also suggests that the Park Service consider physical barriers that could reduce some suicides, such as those involving jumps.
"In Bern, Switzerland, for example, installation of a safety net below a site from which persons had jumped eliminated suicide attempts at that location. Given that 19% of the suicide events in parks were fall related, NPS should consider engineering modifications, where practical and consistent with the NPS responsibility to protect natural, cultural, and historic resources, as one component of a suicide prevention strategy," the authors write. "This might include additional pedestrian barriers on bridges or other means to block access to the most common locations. This approach might require an environmental evaluation of possible deterrents, balanced with the NPS mission to retain site access and beauty."
Also suggested were placement of suicide hot-line information "in kiosks and waysides near high-risk locations and video monitoring at high-risk locations for rapid response."