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Last Updated: Thursday, 6 January 2005, 11:24 GMT
China's suicide bridge sentinel
Nanjing Bridge
Mr Chen patrols the bridge at weekends
A bridge in eastern China that had become a notorious suicide spot has seen a dramatic reduction of deaths in the last year, after one man began voluntarily patrolling it.

The Nanjing Bridge over the Yangtze has become a national symbol since its completion in 1968, but it has also become associated with lost hope and despair. Up to 1,000 people are believed to have died by jumping off it.

In a bid to stop the suicides, a local man, Chen Si, began patrolling the bridge just over a year ago.

Since then he has persuaded dozens of people not to kill themselves and has drawn attention to the increasing number of suicides in China.

Mr Chen told BBC World Service's Outlook programme he was inspired to take action after seeing a television report about suicides from the bridge, aired to mark International Suicide Prevention Day.

"That very day, the deputy director of a securities firm - a wealthy man, who was wearing lots of jewellery - jumped off the bridge," Mr Chen said.

"So I thought he must have been under terrible pressure, or have psychological problems. I thought somebody needs to be here, to stop people like that."

Cold relations

Mr Chen gets up early every weekend and travels by bus to the bridge. He looks for those who seem suicidal or depressed.

He carries a billboard, which features a red heart in the middle and telephone numbers.

Beggar in China
Extremes of poverty and wealth are believed to be partially to blame
His message is simple: "You only have one life, please give yourself a chance. The sun is bound to shine brighter tomorrow."

He said he was also very affected when he saw a person who jumped off a tall building.

"The crowd down below were cheering," he stated.

"I thought, 'relations between human beings have become so cold'."

Despite the country's economic reforms, there is still widespread poverty in China, and Mr Chen said that he believed the psychological consequences of the growing wealth gap are significant factors in pushing people to a state of despair.

"If another person has all the fancy food to eat, and you have only vegetables and pickled radishes, then you are psychologically unbalanced," he said.

"That is a very common reason for suicide - not just in China, but in lots of developing countries. Everything revolves more and more around money."

One of the men he has saved, Hu Shitun, told Outlook that he was driven to the brink when his business went bankrupt and he lost everything, including his house.

"I came up here, and I was going to jump - but then I met Chen Si," he said.

"He talked to me, and he was great. He helped me get a job in the shipyard. Now I make enough money to survive.

"Ever since then, I've been coming here as a volunteer to help him help people."

Lack of support

Chen Si spotted Mr Hu because he was wearing expensive leather shoes, but no socks.

Mr Chen said that physically being on the bridge and therefore able to spot these sorts of details made all the difference.

Chinese woman
Mr Chen believes phone hotlines are not enough to help the suicidal
"There are lots of telephone hotlines, and since I've been here they've set up a crisis hotline in Nanjing, but I haven't had any contact with them," he stated.

"They are all office-based. I believe you have to come out and interact with people, face to face, because otherwise you can't tackle the problem effectively."

However, he faces problems if those he helps have no formal identification, as he cannot help them get a job.

And he added that he was generally struggling with a lack of support.

"I have been running a website to help people suffering from psychological problems, but now, I don't have enough people or money to keep it going," he explained.

"I would like to be able to set up a foundation named Friends Of Life - then we would be able to help people around the clock. I already have 3,000 registered members on my website, and if we could do that then we could raise money to hire some people to help.

"But right now I can only come here at weekends because the rest of the time I have to work to feed my family. So I feel weak and powerless."


SEE ALSO:
More killed by suicide than war
08 Sep 04 |  In Depth
Suicide blights China's women
29 Nov 02 |  Asia-Pacific



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