Warning: This story contains potentially distressing details about suicide.
First responders and suicide prevention advocates in B.C.'s Lower Mainland are condemning behaviour from drivers whose commutes were affected by a crisis on a Metro Vancouver highway bridge this week, including some instances of impatient drivers causing crashes and interfering with officers' work.
The Alex Fraser Bridge, which carries Highway 91 over the Fraser River in Delta, B.C., was partially shut down for more than eight hours on Monday as police worked to save a distressed man who "was outside the safety rail."
The Delta Police Department (DPD) closed the southbound lanes of the bridge so its negotiators could speak with the man safely.
But it said some commuters were more concerned about the disruption to their commutes.
"Various distractions impacted the DPD's priority to preserve life, including drivers 'rubber-necking' to get a view, honking horns, yelling at the individual in crisis, and even encouraging them to take action," police said in a statement.
"Some impacted drivers walked up the bridge deck, made contact with officers, interfered with the negotiations, and even videoed or photographed the individual in crisis."
In two separate instances, drivers drove around barricades or flaggers keeping the road closed. One of them hit a highway vehicle and a concrete barrier, "causing several thousand dollars of damage to all vehicles involved," police said.
Some officers had to leave negotiations with the man in crisis to respond to the crash, the statement said.
Police also found another driver who ignored a flagger was impaired behind the wheel. Their driver's licence was suspended for 90 days, the statement said.
Drivers reminded to put crisis in perspective
Advocates said the behaviour is a reminder to put temporary traffic frustrations into perspective.
"You've got the police and the people who are trying to help that person live, send the message that people care, and then folks who are are honking their horns are inadvertently sending the message that their commute home is more important," said B.C. Crisis Centre executive director Stacy Ashton, who saw the crisis herself on her commute home over the bridge.
"I can guarantee you that the person who is in the mental health crisis is having the worse day."
Ashton, who's worked in the suicide prevention field for roughly 30 years, said most people are understanding when they see someone in crisis and it's "fairly rare" to see someone frustrated to the point of driving dangerously.
"The message I would give to folks who are just out in the world is that crisis can come anytime. You don't know what's going to happen next in your life and something overwhelming can happen ... and when that happens, you can reach out for help," she said.
After eight hours, the man agreed to climb back over the rail to safety.
Police said the factors determining whether to close all or part of the bridge are "complex."
"The bridge deck is a loud environment; the sound of engines, tires and road noise is complicated by heavy gusts of heavy wind and the sway of the bridge, elevating the danger to those involved. While the overall decision to close the bridge is complex, it is guided by the DPD's priority to preserve life," the police statement said.
B.C.'s Ministry of Transportation, which is responsible for several of the Lower Mainland's bridges, says it works with crisis centres and law enforcement agencies, among others, "to ensure everything possible is done to prevent suicide attempts on our structures and keep people safe."
If you or someone you know is in crisis, please contact:
Mental Health Support Line: 310-6789 (no area code required)
1-800-SUICIDE, anywhere in B.C.: 1-800-784-2433