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The Church is silent. My knees are pressing against the cushion of the kneelers and feel the solid wood beneath. I look to my left and see my friend, a devout Catholic missionary. Her prayer probably leaves no room for wishing that the service would wrap up, but I can’t help but count the minutes that pass by. My team in the hackathon that I was competing in understood the importance of going to Church on Holy Thursday, but I couldn’t help but think of the additional weight of the time crunch with one fewer team player. I mapped out the plan for after Mass: walk out of Mass, dash across the street, dodge the construction around campus, and sprint to my team.

The priest ends the Mass. I say goodbye to my friend and sprint back to my hackathon team. I cross the small bridge that spans between the Church and my college campus, Carnegie Mellon. Pittsburgh seems to plant a bridge for any location for any reason. I notice a woman standing next to where the bridge’s fence railing began. She had a plastic bag full of what looked like notes or cards. Immediately, my mind went to the worst possible scenario: they were goodbye notes.

I didn’t want to make assumptions, but I didn’t want to leave without knowing if someone would lose their life just minutes after I passed by them. I approached her and asked: “are you okay?”

“Yes,” she replied. Her eyes said anything but – a look that was all too familiar.

Softly, I ask: “Are you sure I can’t help you?”

“Please leave,” she almost whispers with tears ready to brim.

I nod and leave telling her that I hoped, as someone who also once wanted to find resolve on the other side of the fence, she could find peace in living. She crookedly smiled, and I walked away feeling uneasy.

Soon after, my worst suspicions proved to be true. I hid behind a parked excavator and dialed 911. My head was spinning with all possible outcomes, and I was at a loss for what to do. I had firsthand experience of how unequipped 911 could be for mental health crises, and I was worried that I inflicted another source of danger by trying to save this woman from the danger she was in. Her tight white tank top and leggings showed no possibility of concealing a weapon. Still, the shooting of an unarmed Black teenager by an ex-officer for the University of Pittsburgh – the university right next door – left me unsure. I stayed hidden just to make sure I made the right call.

“911, what’s your emergency?”

I try to stifle my tears enough to speak coherently. “I think I’m seeing a suicide attempt. She’s unarmed and couldn’t hurt anyone.” I beg the dispatcher and pray that that is enough.

“Okay, got it. Someone will be there shortly.”

I look up. The woman has climbed over the concrete wall of the bridge that holds the fence. She grabs onto the edge and pivots away, facing the open road beneath. My mind races even faster. People passed even right by the incident as if she were invisible and it was just another Thursday. Some even pointed in shock.

I faintly see the blue and red lights of the police car, and I feel my heart trying to escape from my chest. I peek my head out to see the police standing in front of the bridge and compelling the woman to climb back to safety. Her fists clenched onto the fence railing, and she was frozen. Slowly but surely, she climbed towards them to safety. The police guided her to the car, where she was taken to the hospital. The dam that held my tears in their sockets was cut loose, and I’m audibly crying. I pray to God thanking Him for the best possible outcome in the given circumstances.

My eyes are almost swollen shut, but they clearly make out a police officer approaching me. I guess standing behind an excavator near campus construction isn’t the most inconspicuous place to hide.

“Were you the one who dialed ‘911’?”

“Yes,” I barely croaked out, nodding.

“You saved the woman’s life. She’s struggled with her mental health in the past, too.”

Both my throat and mouth felt welded shut. I didn’t feel heroic with my face being more tears and snot than actual flesh and bone. All I could do was nod. I wiped my tears, pitch black from mascara.

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The rest of the hackathon is a blur. What I did wasn’t extraordinary in the sense that it didn’t take a comic book hero’s strength to save the day. Any passerby could have done what I had: dialed three numbers on a phone and say that there was a crisis. Many people want to help others, and I know that at least a handful would have acted to protect the woman if they knew the warning signs or knew what to do in a crisis situation. Later that day, I heard from a passerby who felt all that could be done was wait for help. And honestly, I can understand why. Had I never been on the other side of the equation – had I never been that woman on the bridge before – I probably would have said the same.

Before this, I met Dennis once. He spoke at Carnegie Mellon about his two brothers and his mission for suicide prevention advocacy. I simply walked into that auditorium with my notepad on my tablet with the intention of writing a feature piece for the student-run newspaper. But at the end of the talk, I had to go up to him and thank him for his visit. The article got published, and then it was back to work for the following week’s copy.

Just after the incident, I reached back out to Dennis to share the story. I didn’t expect much out of it. Retrospectively, I think that I hoped that this would encourage him to pursue more talks and further the conversation on mental health advocacy. But I received an answer soon afterward. We connected over our shared passion. Both of us had to learn about the pain that suicide brings from unfortunate personal circumstances, but we knew that education and awareness could help prevent that reality for someone else.

I have always wanted to help others, but I think that’s true for most. If you ask someone what they want to do or be, their answers will vary. But if you ask them why they make that choice, they’ll probably mention wanting to help others. Even if it’s something seemingly materialistic as waking up a billionaire, wanting to help at least one person out is probably on that list of reasons why.

Of course, people can be cruel. I was told that some people even laughed when they saw the woman on the bridge as she was climbing around the fence. The stigma and connotations surrounding mental health have caused harmful biases from even those we expect it least from. It paints mental illness as a choice or a personal failure when nothing could be further from the truth. But despite the darkness, many people want to help. Many want to reach out to others in troubled waters, yet they lack the lifeboat or lifering that pulls someone back to safety. They may be too scared to intervene for fear of exacerbating the situation, or they may unknowingly not have the support tools needed to reach out to their loved ones.

The topic of suicide prevention is daunting. The factors leading to suicide make a tangled web, and the obstacles standing in the way of recovery further weave it into a knotted mess. That scares even well-intentioned people from trying to tease apart one thread from another. I felt like I could untie even a thousand threads and it wouldn’t matter. I knew it was cliché to say and believe that no progress can be made if nobody steps in, all because of that same fear. And it’s true that nobody can save everybody – not even a hero from any comic book. But I hope that everybody can at least help somebody, even if that somebody is themselves.


Dennis Gillan

Author Dennis Gillan

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