The Yangtze River Bridge in Nanjing, China is believed to be the most common location in the world for a suicide to occur. So it is there that 48 year-old Chen Si heads every weekend, to try and save lives. This is not his job, but it is his vocation.
There was a time when in the not-too-distant past that the Chinese government would have forbid him from intervening as he does, but not now. And Chen has prevented over 300 suicide attempts in the past twelve years and is now known as the “angel of Nanjing”—a chain smoking, heavy drinking angel who struggles with his own demons.
He wrestles with depression, his outreach has strained his marriage, and his own friends don’t want to talk about his work anymore. But he doesn’t stop. He can’t stop. This all started with the suicide death of a neighbor, an elderly man Chen was planning to visit but didn’t.
So now every weekend he arrives at the bridge, usually by 7:30 AM, armed with emergency pamphlets explaining where people can get help, and business cards with his personal cell phone number. Sometimes Chen walks, sometimes he rides his motor scooter. But always he’s watching. He’s become an expert at picking out the most desperate figures looking down at the brown water of the Yangtze 230 feet below. Even so, he’s witnessed over 50 people jump to their deaths before he could reach them.
Chen’s style of intervention depends on the person he’s trying to save. He can be gentle, speaking like a therapist to those who have not yet decided, but he can also be aggressive when necessary—as in the case of a person who’s already on the other side of the railing. And his efforts are not always appreciated. He’s been physically attacked and beaten by would-be jumpers.
Chen Si’s care doesn’t end once he’s gotten the suicidal people off the bridge. He rents an apartment where they can rest for a few days and receive crisis counseling. He often phones people he’s saved for weeks afterwards to check up on them. He’s even spoken to creditors, trying to lessen the financial burden many he saves are under.
His ultimate hope is that the government will make more of an effort to curb the growing suicide epidemic in China where more than a third of the world’s suicides now occur.
There is a Chinese saying, “The prosperity of a nation is everyone’s responsibility.” For Chen that means being a weekend lifeguard on the Yangtze River Bridge.
Chen Si is a hero you should know. And I’m Dr. Ross Porter.