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NEW BRUNSWICK, NJ— The New Brunswick Parking Authority (NBPA) approved a resolution to dedicate up to $900,000 towards “acquiring and installing safety barrier/fencing at certain parking deck facilities.”
NBPA’s approval of the resolution borrowing the funds comes after New Brunswick experienced two deaths in one week where victims of suicide fell from New Brunswick parking facilities in June.
New Jersey’s Local Finance Board will be asked to approve the borrowing in August. NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon said the project would likely begin in September and is expected to take a couple of months to complete.
New Brunswick Today has been the only outlet to cover the tragedies in 2020, with articles that highlighted barriers and fencing as a solution.
In the most recent incident, a 26-year-old man from Somerset died after jumping from a Rutgers University parking facility around 1:33am on June 11, according to police reports.
The young man’s passing was at least the tenth suicide at a New Brunswick parking deck in the past six years, and the second to take place that week.
The other nine suicides all took place at NBPA parking decks, including the June 7 death of Ellen Gara, a Highland Park psychologist.
Joseph Gara, Ellen Gara’s son, spoke with NBT with the hope that future suicides can be prevented through speaking openly about the topic.
“People don’t want to talk about it, but suicide is a serious problem that needs to be talked about,” Joseph said.
“This conversation needs to take place all over the world, because suicide isn’t a fluke.”
Grieving Family Upset by NBPA “Negligence”
Joseph Gara, 24, described his mother, Ellen Gara, as a “brilliant, warm woman” who helped “hundreds of people” at her private practice as a psychologist in Highland Park.
“She was able to help so many people,” he said. “But she couldn’t help herself.
“My mom was there for everything. She was the person I could always call, but now I can’t, and I’ll never be able to talk to her again.”
“Individuals who use the most lethal forms of suicide are likely to have been seriously contemplating ending their lives for a long time,” said Ruth Ball, Ellen Gara’s sister.
“If they are now seeking a method, and the parking garages remain available and accessible, then the garages are simply a convenient, accessible means.
“It is not that my sister would have been ‘beyond help,’” Ruth Ball said of her sister’s mental state. “The help she would have needed at that moment would have been a barrier to provide her with physical safety.”
“My mom was terrified of heights,” Joseph Gara said. “Why wasn’t there anybody there to stop her? I wish there was a safety net for my mom.”
One witness, Kathleen Cohen, did not see Gara fall from the parking deck at 8:02am, but heard what she thought was a car accident.
“At first, I ran towards her to try to help and see what I could do,” Cohen said.
“But then I realized that there was nothing that I could do or that anyone could do. Nobody saw her before she jumped.”
Joseph Gara was born at Saint Peter’s Hospital, and is a recent graduate of Rutgers University. Ellen Gara had also studied at Rutgers University, where she obtained a Masters of Science degree in psychology and her PsyD degree in clinical psychology. Little more than a year ago, he said, he bought his school books with the RUexpress card his mother gave him and attended classes within walking distance of where she died.
“New Brunswick used to be my home, but I’ll never look at this place the same way again,” Gara said.
“Every morning, I wake up and realize that my mom is dead. Every time I see New Brunswick expensive buildings, I think about my mom jumping.
“My perspective of everything has changed.”
His mother’s death, Gara said, is not “an isolated incident.”
According to Gara, the “stigma” around suicide is “vapid, judgmental and prevents people from coming forward when they feel suicidal, or they aren’t taken seriously and brushed off as overreacting.”
Ruth Ball explained that the reasons for which her sister died by suicide are “deep, complex and multi-layered.” Death by suicide cannot be simplified as “depression, stress, [or] hopelessness” because individuals are unique in the help that they need to address their own mental illness.
Although her sister’s death does not reflect the suicide risk or mental needs of other individuals, her death does demonstrate “the need for physical barriers at the sorts of places that [extreme-risk] individuals might use to complete their suicides.”
“She dedicated her life as a psychologist to helping people, and no one was there to help her,” said Joseph Gara.
“I wish there was a safety net for my mom.”
Joseph called NBPA Executive Director Mitch Karon’s prior comment that installing suicide prevention measures had “put on the back burner” due to the COVID-19 pandemic “a slap in the face” to families who have lost loved ones to suicide.
“A lot of cities have already experienced these types of tragedies and have acted swiftly as a result,” Joseph said, noting that NBPA’s prior reliance on low-cost mitigation strategies such as suicide hotline signage was clearly not enough.
“If this does not change, it will continue… Other cities have installed suicide barriers, and that’s the only thing that seems to work.
“No one seems to care. But at the end of the day, the public needs to speak out and demand change,” Joseph said.
“When it’s your family member, it’s the hardest thing in the world. At the end of the day, if someone passes away, it doesn’t matter how. They’re gone and you can’t change it.”
“I do consider the NBPA partially responsible for my sister’s death,” said Ruth Ball.
“She was obviously in distress, but it’s as if the NBPA left a loaded weapon lying around.
“I believe that given the number of previous suicides from the tops of these parking decks, and the prior recommendations made, the failure to secure these structures by erecting effective barriers constitutes negligence on the part of the NBPA.”
NBPA’s Response to The Deaths
On July 22, the NBPA approved a resolution to dedicate no more than $900,000 to installing physical barriers on four of their parking facilities.
It’s the first time the NBPA is seriously considering physical barriers to prevent future tragedies.
Ruth Ball said that she was “overwhelmed” by the decision.
“My sister would have liked the fact that her final desperate act managed to somehow ultimately help others,” Ball said of Ellen Gara.
“She was so dedicated to helping others. I just wish [the barriers] had been there in time to help her.”
“The parking authority finally decided to have a spine,” Gara said.
“But a decision made seven or six years too late will never bring my mother back.
“You can spend triple that amount, you can spend trillions of dollars, but I’ll never get to talk to my mom again.
“It takes a catastrophe for people to care, but it’s too late for my mom.”
“Whether you want to call it the front burner or the back burner, we are currently looking at it,” Mitch Karon, Executive Director of the NBPA, said of the issue of suicides at NBPA parking facilities during NBPA’s June 24 meeting.
“We are committed to mitigation,” said Harry S. Delgado, Director of Operations and Security for NBPA. “We construct all our facilities to meet New Jersey building codes as well as guidelines established by the uniform construction code.”
“We have safety measures in place such as physical tours of all our 12 facilities by our Parking Services Department, the use of video analytics and other technologies coordinated to help deter these types of incidents,” Delgado said.
Delgado said that the NBPA “remains committed to do anything it can in our efforts to mitigate these tragic incidents notwithstanding the need to focus attention on the mental health crisis exacerbated by this public health crisis.”
Security personnel at a NBPA parking facility told a NBT reporter that personnel are being especially cautious and diligent as they patrol the parking facilities in response to the two most recent deaths.
Unless the personnel are specifically trained to assist a person who is at immediate risk of dying by suicide, however, Ruth doubts the effectiveness of security surveillance.
“I think my sister specifically chose the day and time that she went to the garage to reduce the likelihood that she would encounter anyone,” Ruth said.
“Even if they had tried to intervene, I can’t imagine how they could possibly have the high-level crisis intervention and other clinical skills that would have been required to save her at that point.”
Suicide hotline signage was installed in 2015. However, six more deaths have taken place at NBPA facilities since the installation of these signs.
Ruth describes the use of suicide hotline signs as a response to the deaths in the garages as “inadequate, misguided and misinformed.”
The International Parking Institute (IPI), in their guide on suicide prevention in parking facilities, also cautions “organizations from thinking that signage is enough.”
NBPA has also installed perimeter alarms in one of their parking facilities. However, this method of suicide prevention is not widely used and there is little evidence to suggest that it is effective.
Immediately after the most recent tragedy the authority moved to restrict access to the roofs of four different garages.
“We have restricted pedestrian access to many areas in our facilities… by installing scissor gates and other physical barriers,” Delgado said.
“The NBPA is also working with our structural engineers assessing our facilities and actively engaged in pursuing additional resource modifications to deter these types of incidents.”
Kim Kane, a suicide prevention specialist who had served as the Suicide Prevention Program Manager with the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare, worked on a study focused on improving the safety and making specific recommendations for substantial suicide prevention measures in the parking decks of Boise, Idaho.
“Barriers are the only thing that make a difference,” she said in a previous interview with NBT.
“Means restriction is actually one of the very few things we know that actually reduces suicide rates.”
“Multiple studies have been conducted on bridges and buildings and it has been proven over the years that barriers do save lives,” Kane and her team’s research explains.
“Public awareness” is also a crucial component in preventing suicide, says their research – “not only in the sense of getting an at-risk person help, but educating our fellow community members about what they can do to help suicidal people both directly and indirectly.”
Rutgers University Remains Silent
While NBPA is finally taking action, Rutgers University has remained silent on the issue. They share the parking facility that was the site of the June 11 suicide with Robert Wood Johnson University Hospital (RWJUH), and operate at least three additional garages in New Brunswick.
Although Rutgers is tasked with maintaining the aging deck where the 26-year-old Somerset man’s life came to an end, the university’s Senior Director of University News and Media Relations Dory Devlin did not respond to multiple inquiries from NBT about the incident.
“We cannot comment on practices within a facility that [RWJUH] does not own,” responded Peter Haigney, RWJUH’s Director of Public Relations.
“However, our hospital offers a variety of mental and behavioral resources for employees and family members in need of emotional support.”
“Resources are available through our employee assistance program and our Connect Together program which offer individual counseling, peer-to-peer support, and online services,” Haigney continued.
“We also offer behavioral health resources for our communities through the RWJBarnabas Health Behavioral Health Network.”
The second leading cause of death among college-age students is suicide, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention. More than half of U.S. college students have considered suicide, according to the American Psychological Association.
A 25-year-old Rutgers graduate student enrolled in the Molecular Biology and Biochemistry program died on February 3, 2019, after falling from a New Brunswick parking deck.
“Depression is a killer, just like cancer,” said Joseph Gara, with reference to his mother’s suicide.
Gara hopes, though, that speaking about his mother’s death and his own grief will encourage vulnerable people to “reconsider” their potential suicides and instead, seek the help that they need.
“Recovery is the norm. Most people who become suicidal survive,” Kane said. “Most people who come to feel the way they do, do survive.”
Nishika Bagchi, an undergraduate Research assistant at Rutgers University with the Department of Psychology’s ABUSA Lab, has struggled with mental illness of her own and of her loved ones for much of her life.
“I find it incredibly common for students to suffer in silence,” Bagchi said.
“Both my friends and I do not share our experiences for fear of being misunderstood, judged, and pushed away. Even when people say, ‘You don’t have to be alone,’ it’s extraordinarily difficult to believe them.”
Bagchi struggled with an eating disorder during her first year of college and has struggled with suicidal ideation throughout her college career.
“What helped me through my mental health issues was joining student theatre,” Bagchi said. “Being able to act and bond to people through performance art allowed me to feel connected to others.
“Theatre helped me combat my loneliness and my mental illness by providing a space to create art and entertainment for others.”
Although Bagchi still struggles with mental illness and temptations of maladaptive coping, she is confident in her road to recovery.
“Treating my disorder has involved uncovering anxiety and depression that I have suffered with but pushed down for a large part of my life,” Bagchi said.
“Intrusive thoughts are not something that can just go away easily.”
Even with successful treatment, mental illness does not disappear – like chronic, physical illness, ongoing care is necessary.
There is Hope. There is Help.
“There are many great mental health resources available in New Brunswick and the surrounding towns,” said Noreen Iqbal, founder of Olive Branch Therapy Group of East Brunswick and New Brunswick.
“We encourage our community to reach out to mental health resources.”
With locations in East Brunswick and downtown New Brunswick community, Iqbal says Olive Branch Therapy Group works hard to erase the stigma of mental illness.
“It is human to struggle, and to be in pain,” Iqbal said. “We also need to recognize that this is a time of overwhelming emotional stress. It’s OK to reach out for help.”
Although the pandemic and social distancing protocols pose obstacles to in-person therapy and treatment, many organizations, such as Olive Branch Therapy Group, offer teletherapy options.
“Teletherapy is a confidential and convenient way to speak to a therapist during the pandemic while practicing social distancing,” Iqbal said.
“All therapeutic modalities utilized in-session are based on a person’s individual needs, preferences and experiences.”
Other resources include:
- National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-8255 or https://suicidepreventionlifeline.org/
- The NJ Hopeline: 1-855-654-6735 or http://www.njhopeline.com/
- Suicide Prevention Resource Center: 1-800-273-8255 or https://www.sprc.org/
- The Jed Foundation (Specializes in Suicide Prevention at Universities): https://www.jedfoundation.org/
- Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration: https://www.samhsa.gov/
- The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention: https://afsp.org/
- National Alliance on Mental Illness (NJ): https://www.naminj.org/
“It is a time of overwhelming stress, and it is okay to reach out for help,” Iqbal said.
“By continuing to bring the importance of mental health to the forefront of our minds, we can be more alert to key symptoms and trends.”
If an individual is exhibiting warning signs of suicide, do not leave them alone.
They should be taken to any medical facility or a mental health professional for emergency treatment.
Warning signs to watch out for:
- Talking about wanting to die.
- Feelings of hopelessness or having no reason to live.
- Feeling trapped or in unbearable pain.
- Acting reckless, anxious, or agitated.
- Isolating or withdrawing themselves.
Things you can do 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.
- Take action. Remove means, 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).
“If you know someone who is detaching themselves, apathetic, ‘not home,’ that might lead to suicidal behavior,” Gara said. “Silent, complacent, isolated…
“If I saw somebody suicidal and about to jump from a ledge, I would say what my mom used to say to me when I was depressed,” Gara said. “Suicide is a permanent solution to temporary problem.
“Sometimes, self destruction is a part of your survival mentality, but bottling up how you feel until you’re making that choice won’t help.”
Kristin is a New Brunswick Today contributor who focuses on community welfare and individuals' stories. She is a graduate of Rutgers, New Brunswick where she studied journalism, English, and Animal Science.
Mohsin is a third-year Rutgers student whose passion for local activism, artistic expression, and organizational leadership is only matched by his desire to bring intriguing, relevant stories to the New Brunswick community.