Photos by Rachael Long
By RACHAEL LONG
Since 2000, more than 32 people have jumped to their deaths from the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge. Tennessee House Representative Sam Whitson (R-Franklin) wants to recognize the suicidal health crisis at the bridge, and he’s filed a resolution to do just that.
For District 65, Whitson represents Williamson County, home to the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge. The 1,572-foot long bridge spans Tennessee Highway 96 and sits 155 feet above the pavement below.
Of the 32 deaths by suicide at the bridge, eight have occurred in the last two years.
House Joint Resolution 134 was written by the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition and Scott Ridgway of the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network (TSPN). The coalition was formed in 2018 by Trish Merelo and Sarah Elmer, each of whom lost immediate loved ones at the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge.
Partnered with Centerstone and TSPN, the coalition’s goal is to add some kind of protective barrier or netting to the precariously low, 32-inch guard rails. The bridge falls under federal jurisdiction with the National Parks Service (NPS).
Four rangers must patrol the 444 miles of parkway from Mississippi to Tennessee. Because of the large amount of ground that must be covered, the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office now responds to incidents at the bridge.
The resolution emphasizes the pervasiveness of suicide in the state of Tennessee, noting that three Tennesseans die each day from suicide, the leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 17. More than 1,000 Tennessee lives are lost to suicide each year, with an estimated 25 attempts for each suicide death, according to the resolution.
In October 2010, TSPN worked with NPS to install National Suicide Prevention Lifeline signs as a safety measure. From then until September 2013, zero suicides were reported.
Since 2010, the resolution outlines, no additional safety measures have been taken, despite the fact that the Williamson County Sheriff’s Office has decided to allocate daily resources to monitor the bridge and routinely respond to suicide attempts. TSPN continues to work toward the addition of cellular call boxes, but requests for a barrier/netting, cameras and better signage were denied.
The resolution states that the official position of the National Suicide Prevention lifeline is the use of bridge barriers is the most effective means of suicide bridge prevention; other safety measures such as phones or signage are only supplemental to bridge barriers.
Most simply put, the resolution states, “…the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge too frequently serves as lethal means in a suicidal crisis.”
The resolution states that the suicidal health crisis at the Natchez Trace Parkway Bridge be recognized and efforts to rectify the hazard be supported by working with NPS to erect barriers on the bridge, be it resolved by the House of Representatives and concurrence by the Senate.
Merelo and other members of the coalition have talked with NPS about the possibility of implementing barriers on the bridge, but with federal land involved, there’s no guarantee.
HJR134 could be the first step.