Say This One Thing and You Might Talk Someone Out of Suicide

Updated: Jun. 08, 2018

17-year-old Desmond quickly realized the man sitting on the edge of the bridge was planning to end his life. So he struck up a conversation.

September-2017-HEROES-bridge-builder-photograph-by-sara-forrestSara Forrest for Reader's Digest It was 9 p.m. on a dark, chilly night in November 2015. Desmond Powell, then 17, was walking home from a basketball game along an empty seven-lane road in Manchester, New Hampshire; he was looking forward to seeing his mom and grabbing dinner. As he approached the Granite Street Bridge, he noticed something peculiar—a person was sitting on the cement railing, legs dangling over the Merrimack River, about 100 feet below.

“At first I thought he was just hanging out. But as I got closer, I heard him muttering. Then I clearly heard ‘I’m just gonna jump,’” says Powell.

The stranger was slender, probably in his 20s, Powell thought. He wore dark clothing, and his red hair was topped by a baseball cap. “Hey, buddy, what are you doing?” Powell asked. He kept his distance, standing about six feet away so as not to spook the stranger.

“I’m gonna jump,” the guy said.

“His voice had pain in it, but I could tell he didn’t really want to do this. He just felt there wasn’t any other way,” says Powell. (Suicidal thoughts often stem from depression. These are the hidden signs that you have depression.)

Powell sought to engage him. “You have any kids?”

Without turning to look at Powell, the stranger pulled up a picture of his daughter on his cell phone. She looked to be two years old. “Think about how losing her dad at a young age will affect her,” Powell suggested. Over the next ten minutes they talked, the stranger alternating between crying and staring vacantly at the churning black ­water below.

“My heart was racing, but I stayed collected,” says Powell. By doing so, he teased out the source of the stranger’s troubles.

“I’m having a rough time,” the stranger said. “I can’t make any money, I’m hungry, and I’m addicted to heroin.”

Powell, who by this point had inched closer to the stranger, assured him that he cared and that others would care, too, if he leaped into the river. Something about Powell’s calm, earnest entreaty caused the stranger to finally turn and look at him. ­Powell, now about two feet from the stranger, held out his hand and left it there. “I felt I could grab him in time if he jumped, but I also wanted him to know that I was there for him,” he says. To his surprise, the stranger took his hand and climbed down.

“Let me buy you something to eat,” Powell said. “I’m Desmond.” They walked a few minutes to a Dunkin’ Donuts. As they sat down to eat, someone who’d overheard Powell talk about the stranger’s sad story suggested that the police be called. Afraid he might be arrested, the stranger bolted from the restaurant. “Come back!” Powell yelled. But he was gone before Powell could stop him.

Powell scoured the area, looking for the stranger. While searching a parking lot, he heard “Hey, Desmond.” It was the stranger. “I’m sorry, man. I panicked.” Then, after a pause: “Can you call the police so I can get help?”

The two waited together on the street until the police arrived. During that time, the stranger turned the tables on Powell. “He asked me about my life and goals,” says Powell.

Fifteen minutes later, Powell watched the police drive the stranger away. He never did get his name, nor does he know what became of him. But Powell, who was honored by the city of Manchester for his caring response, will always remember the last words the stranger said to him. As he climbed into the patrol car, he turned to Powell. “Thank you,” he said. “You really are a hero to me.”

Don’t miss how this crisis text hotline is preventing thousands of suicides. If someone in your life struggles with depression, use these psychologist-approved ways to show you care.

Reader's Digest
Originally Published in Reader's Digest