NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ—A Highland Park psychologist, age 66, died by falling from a New Brunswick parking deck on the morning of Sunday, June 7.
Her death is the ninth suicide involving one of New Brunswick’s parking decks in six years, and the second to take place this year.
Reliable sources told New Brunswick Today that another similar tragedy has occurred since June 7, the second in one week. Police have not yet responded to a request for information about the incident.
New Brunswick Today reported on the eighth death in March and detailed steps that the New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) could take to prevent further deaths.
Although NBPA officials previously informed New Brunswick Today’s editor of potential plans to implement physical preventative barriers on one of their parking decks, those plans to prevent suicides have been “put on the back burner due to the pandemic,” according to the NBPA’s executive director, Mitchell Karon.
The NBPA recently installed gates on some elevator doors at the topmost floors and stairwells of parking decks in response to the most recent suicides.
David Minchello, general legal counsel for the NBPA, confirmed during the April 27 NBPA Board of Commissioners meeting that he received a copy of New Brunswick Today’s previous article on the issue of New Brunswick’s suicides and has distributed copies to the board.
“Acknowledging the seriousness of this mental health crisis, the NBPA considers the safety of our patrons in our facilities a priority,” Harry S. Delgado, Director of Operations and Security for NBPA, wrote in an email to NBT reporters.
“We are committed to mitigation,” Delgado continued.
“We have safety measures in place such as physical tours of all our twelve facilities by our Parking Services Department, the use of video analytics and other technologies coordinated to help deter these types of incidents.”
While NBT’s reporter investigated a parking deck facility, three security personnel approached her with compassionate concern during her time there. They eventually asked her to leave despite learning that she is a reporter. One worker explained to her that, given the recent deaths, they are being especially diligent and mindful when they notice any questionable behavior.
An Eyewitness Account
Kathleen Cohen, a fellow of Sports Medicine with Rutgers’ Robert Wood Johnson Medical School, witnessed the aftermath of the victim’s fall.
“I was just walking when I heard what I thought was a car accident,” Cohen said.
“At first, I ran towards her to try to help and see what I could do… but then I realized that there was nothing that I could do or that anyone could do.
“Having that all happen in real time meant that I had no time to prepare myself. There was no way to protect myself from that while I was trying to understand what happened.”
Police officers who responded to the incident were “really compassionate,” according to Cohen.
“They weren’t judgmental.”
Cohen and other witnesses were “shocked” and “saddened” by the death; officers and other witnesses, similarly to Cohen, wished they had been able to help the victim prior to her fall.
“She was a block away from a very good hospital emergency room,” Cohen said.
“They would’ve been able to help her immediately.
“Nobody saw her before she jumped or going up the floors. No one could have talked her out of that.
“I don’t feel responsible, but there is part of me that thinks… What if I had seen her sooner?” Cohen asks.
A Story of Survival
Two years prior, Susan Higgins worked as an ER nurse at New Brunswick’s Robert Wood Johnson (RWJ) Hospital, where the stressors in her life “snowballed” and drove her into a state of “despair.
“I was already in a place of hopelessness, feeling that nothing mattered, and that everything in my life was pointless,” Susan said.
“It was a busy day. I had my patient load, but I couldn’t concentrate even though I tried to stay focused.
“As I was getting more depressed, I was already thinking of ways to kill myself if I really would. For whatever reason, I already felt that using the parking deck would have been the easiest thing.”
Higgins admits there were several warning signs in her emotional state and behavior that she “couldn’t see” before she reached the “dark place” of considering the end to her own life.
“It wasn’t that one or two things happened,” Higgins said.
“There were months, even years, of accumulated stress in work and my life.
“I felt like no matter what I did, it didn’t matter or how hard I worked didn’t matter.”
Though clinical depression is a relatively common mental illness, part of its complexity is due to its wide range of etiologies.
In Higgins’s case, she explained that factors in her personal life, the pervasive “punitive” culture in healthcare professions, and biological imbalances influenced her depression.
“There’s an attitude in healthcare, especially in emergency medicine, where they say, ‘you need to deal with this. If you can’t handle it alone, you’re weak. You’re not cut out for this. You can’t do this anymore,'” Higgins said.
Cohen also said “there is a stigma” among the barriers preventing healthcare workers from coming forward about their personal struggles with mental illness.
“In the medical field, it is almost adaptive to see doctors and nurses as invincible,” Cohen said.
“They are expected to give everything they have to their profession and their patients and work overtime. Then it’s discouraged for them to say, ‘I’m struggling,’ or to disclose a psychiatric illness, even when they need support.”
“Particularly in health care, you need support and you can’t do these things alone,” Higgins said.
“When you have a punitive system, where people get in trouble for mistakes, people are going to hide their mistakes. That snowballs into a culture without growth or learning and with fear… The ones who suffer are the patients and healthcare workers.”
A spokesperson for RWJUH has not responded to questions sent by a NBT reporter about what mental health services are available to their staff.
Alongside the strife in her work life, her clinical depression actively fought to perpetuate harmful, self-blaming perspectives.
“Depression thrives in isolation,” Higgins said.
“The depression lies to you. It tries to convince you that you’re the cause of all the problems.
“Calling victims of suicide ‘selfish’ misses the point.
“People who die by suicide think the people who love them would be better off if they’re gone.”
Susan Higgins, however, did not die that day.
She remembers January 26, 2018, as the day her life changed for the better.
“That’s the day I finally reached out for help,” Higgins said.
Instead of ending her life, she stopped the physician’s assistant of her primary doctor, who was also working at RWJ that day.
“You have to help me,” She told him. “I need help.”
The physician’s assistant connected Higgins with her primary care doctor, who reacted compassionately and responsibly by admitting her to another hospital’s ER for emergency treatment.
“My primary doctor saved my life that day,” Higgins said.
The Value of Getting Help
Although getting help for her mental health was not a “straightforward” process, Higgins’ treatment has helped her build a reliable support system with a multitude of coping tools such as one-on-one counseling, group therapy, medications like antidepressants, guided meditation and more.
“Therapy is kind of like an oil change,” Higgins explains.
“Even when I have a great support system, it’s still helpful for me to go back when I feel that I need it and touch base with a professional.
“A good therapist does more than listen.
“A therapist is going to be there to help you differentiate between what is constructive and what is helpful and what beliefs may be harmful to you.”
Higgins has found medication to be especially helpful, although she was resistant at first to taking antidepressants.
“I didn’t want to go on antidepressants for a long time,” she said. “I assumed that I just needed therapy.
“But when I got to a point where things were actually pretty good in my life, I still felt really depressed.
“I had to try different medications and it isn’t as simple as going on a pill. Sometimes you need to make changes.”
Despite her complicated journey to recovery, her treatment has enabled her to better cope with challenges in her life.
“The last few months managing an ER in NYC have been very stressful, but I haven’t been depressed,” Higgins said. “I certainly haven’t been to a point of considering killing myself.
“I’m happy that I got help.”
Both Higgins and Cohen compared mental illnesses like depression to chronic physical illnesses like diabetes that need ongoing treatment and help.
“If someone is diabetic, and they start to recognize their symptoms of low blood sugar, they know what to do. They know what steps to take to get their blood sugar back up. Then they check their blood sugar and go from there,” Higgins said.
“You don’t have to wait until you’re in a diabetic shock to get help.
“Depression is a disease, and part of treatment is recognizing when you need help and taking those steps before it’s too late.”
“I don’t distinguish between physical disease and mental disease as much as others tend to, because I understand that it is a physical problem,” Cohen said.
Steps to Prevent Suicide
In order to prevent suicides at their parking facilities, the NBPA has taken some steps in the past, as previously reported by New Brunswick Today.
Previously implemented plans include perimeter alarms on one of their eight parking decks and signage that raises awareness for the New Jersey Hopeline.
However, there is little evidence to suggest that perimeter alarms are effective as a method of suicide prevention.
Signage for suicide hotlines also do not tend to work as effective means of suicide prevention on their own.
Individuals who intend to die by suicide often do not bring their phones with them. Elizabeth Johnsen, a victim of suicide who died after falling from a New Brunswick parking deck on June 5, 2014, did not bring her phone with her.
“There’s really not good evidence that signs matter all that much,” Kim Kane, a suicide prevention specialist who worked to improve parking facilities in Boise, Idaho, said in a previous NBT interview.
“To think you can talk someone out of suicidality with the help signs may be overly optimistic,” Kathleen Cohen said.
“Maybe [the reliance on signs] misunderstands the actual nature of the suicidal condition.
“If somebody is suffering that much that they think that the only answer is suicide, you can’t always expect them to be able to ask for help in that moment like making a phone call.”
“It’s harder to reach that person when they’ve already made up their mind,” Susan Higgins said.
Barriers, while being the most “expensive” and “intrusive” method of preventing suicide, are also the only method proven to prevent deaths.
“Once you put barriers up, suicides typically go to zero,” Kane explained.
“Means restriction is actually one of the very few things we know that actually reduces suicide rates.”
“Means restriction is known to be effective,” Cohen said. “If you can, why would you not?”
Although Cohen doubts that the NBPA holds meetings to discuss their “moral duty” to the public, they do have “fiscal” and “liability” concerns which should make the suicides on their parking facilities a major concern.
“It is both morally and financially impractical for them to allow this to continue,” Cohen said.
“Why don’t they add fencing where you literally can’t fall from the building or the parking deck?” Higgins asks of the NBPA.
“How much could a chain link fence cost?”
“If you prevent the means, you give that person a second chance,” Cohen said.
When asked about plans for physical barriers, Security Director Delgado explained that NBPA has “restricted pedestrian access to many areas in our facilities to authorized personnel only by installing scissor gates and other physical barriers.”
Those barriers have been installed on some of the elevator entrances of the topmost floors and the stairwells of their parking facilities.
“Structural modifications to our facilities are currently being considered,” Delgado said.
Delgado recognizes the issue as a “mental health crisis exasperated by a public health crisis.”
“The NBPA is committed to do anything it can in [their] efforts to mitigate these tragic incidents,” Delgado said.
There is Hope. There is Help.
If someone exhibits any warning signs of suicide, they should not be left alone.
They should be taken to any medical facility for emergency treatment.
Warning signs to watch out for:
- Talking about wanting to die.
- Feelings of hopelessness or having no reason to live.
- Feelings of being trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Acting reckless, anxious, or agitated.
- Isolation and withdrawal.
Steps you can take to help:
- Do not leave the person alone.
- Be direct. Talk openly and objectively about suicide.
- Listen. Allow expression of emotions. Accept the emotions.
- Be nonjudgmental. Do not act shocked or surprised.
- Do not debate or lecture on the value of life.
- Remove means of harm, such as medication or weapons.
- Do not swear to secrecy – Seek help.
- Call the New Jersey Hopeline at 1-855-NJ-HOPELINE (654-6735) or the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
“I know that it’s really hard to help yourself, but it’s not shameful to get help.” Higgins said. “It’s not weakness. It does not mean that you aren’t able to cope with something.
“It is the same as if you have a broken leg or a chronic medical illness. Sometimes you need outside help, and it is OK to ask for help.”