Inside look at how police suicide negotiator, health department partner to save lives

OVERLAND PARK, Kan. - It was dinner time on Easter Sunday when one of Johnson County's busiest intersections turned into a chaotic scene.

A middle-aged man had climbed over the fence on the 75th Street overpass of Interstate 35. The only thing keeping him from falling into oncoming traffic was his aching grasp of the fence behind him.

"They're trying to convince themselves nobody cares," Bill Art of the Johnson County Health Department said of those contemplating suicide. "They're collecting all this information that makes them feel 'I'm a burden to people. People would be better off without me.'"

For privacy reasons, police aren't releasing the specifics of the man's condition, but Art has had conversations with thousands of people who are suicidal, and uses his 20 years of experience to summarize the common feelings.

"The pain is so much for them that they start to push people away," Art said. "They get to the point where the say 'Finally, I can end my life.'"

Officers were called to the scene to block traffic, and a negotiator from the Overland Park Police Department approached the ledge.

"We asked them what their name is, introduce ourselves, and start a conversation," Crisis Negotiation Team Supervisor Sgt. Robert Flemming said. "You go over options for them. Options that don't include jumping off a bridge."

The police department routinely uses the mental health crisis hotline for assistance. Trained staff members from the Johnson County Health Department walk officers through step by step instruction.

The conversation on the bridge that Sunday evening went on for two hours. Finally, there was a breakthrough. 

"It's not about killing yourself," Art said. "It's about stopping the pain."

Art said helping a suicidal person stop the pain is the key to stopping them from hurting themselves. And when that happens, it's obvious.

"You can visibly see they had to pick up the weight of the world, the weight of that suffering that they're going through and continue on," Art said. "All because somebody cared."

It wasn't just somebody who cared. In fact, that intersection sits right between multiple jurisdictions. Assisting the Overland Park negotiator was a small army of law enforcement personnel from five different agencies.

"It doesn't matter what jurisdiction we're from as far as in Johnson County," Flemming said. "We're just trying to help the people."

A report from the Center for Disease Control states the number of suicides among adults between the ages of 35 and 64 has gone up 28 percent since 1999.

According to the report, the greatest increases in suicide rates were among people between the ages of 50 and 54 (48 percent) and 55 and 59 (49 percent).

For emergency suicide assistance, call 913-268-0156.

For more suicide prevention information, go to mentalhealth.jocogov.org

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