On Tuesday the DC Council approved emergency legislation to spend $850,000 on suicide barriers on Connecticut Avenue’s William Howard Taft Bridge, which stretches over the Rock Creek Park gorge. Since 2010, at least 11 people have died after jumping off the bridge.
The measure is in part thanks to the work of Chelsea Van Thof. She began advocating for the barriers after her partner, 29 year-old veterinarian Dr. Peter Tripp, jumped off the bridge last April. Van Thof spoke to Washingtonian about how she feels now that the legislation passed.
You’ve been an integral part of getting this passed. What has your advocacy work looked like?
I didn’t know how to begin—I’ve never advocated for anything before. I reached out to my ANC Commissioner Janell Pagats. After a couple emails, she got on board. We created a resolution and then started speaking with media to get the public to buy in. Then others started reaching out to me, like local organizers and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, and we created a sort of dream team.
We started trying to set up meetings with councilmembers and the mayor— I was successful about half the time. One time in the fall I managed to track down the mayor at an elementary school down the street from my house, but nothing really came of it. We met with Charles Allen and he was on board from the get go, and then we started talking with DDOT.
What were some challenges you faced? What were people opposed to?
My first interaction with the council was through Phil Mendelson and it didn’t go very well. I kind of ambushed him at one of his Facebook events. When we talked again later, he told me that it wasn’t worth it for him. The other difficulty was that the councilmembers didn’t know which jurisdiction the bridge falls under; it’s between Ward 2 and Ward 3. The councilmember from Ward 2 would say talk to Ward 3, and visa versa.
The DC Preservation League also had some concerns, and I think some people are worried about barriers obstructing views. When people hear ‘barrier,’ they think of a fence like what’s on the Duke Ellington Bridge. But, there are different options for barriers. In fact, some studies show that mesh nets may be almost 10 percent more effective in preventing jumpers.
That’s a lot of responsibility. Do you feel like it’s taken over your life?
This is all on top of my full time job as a veterinarian. Yes, I have struggled with the time commitment, and also the emotional toll. There’s just no closure when you lose someone to suicide and there’s really nothing that you find very comforting. With Peter, he had no history with mental illness, so this came as complete shock. Doing this is the only place I could find any comfort.
Has this been a way for you to channel all your emotions and energy, so you don’t feel helpless?
One of my mantras is ‘you can only control yourself ,’ and for people who have lost someone to suicide, they feel a certain amount of blame and they’ll never be able to know what was going through their loved one’s head. You can’t control that, and you can end up losing control over your life. Being able to do something like this has really kept me going. Honestly, I’m a little afraid of when it stops. There’s a bill in Congress for this and I think I’ll do advocacy for it, as a way to keep Peter close.
So you are going to continue to focus on suicide barriers?
Yes, for the barriers, but also for the larger picture. You know, he was a veterinarian and I’m a veterinarian and we have a suicide crisis in our profession that not enough people outside know about. There’s been research that shows that male veterinarians are 1.6 times more likely to die by suicide and female veterinarians are 2.4 times more likely to die by suicide than the general population, and there’s many reasons for that. We have high debt loads, we work long hours, and we can have abusive clients. I learned after Peter died that during his last month, he experienced a lot of difficult cases, which I never knew.
The barriers are great, it’s a great short term effort to save lives, but I also want to get into systematically changing our mental health services for the long term. For people jump from a bridge, they have to get to that point. If they have the support they need, they won’t get there.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length. If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call 988 for help.