If you or someone you know is in crisis and contemplating suicide, call the Maine Crisis Hotline at 1-888-568-1112. If you are not in Maine, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). A trained crisis prevention worker will be available to talk and set you up with services to help. You can also chat with a crisis counselor online at www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.
VERONA ISLAND, Maine — Nearly all of the phones on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge installed to connect people in crisis with support were out of order for at least a month, including on the day that a woman died by suicide there.
The Nov. 15 suicide came a month after officials discovered three of the four phones were not in service and days before they were replaced.
The recent outage marks the latest in a history of malfunctioning phones meant to serve as a lifeline for those considering suicide and prompted the Maine Department of Transportation to replace the equipment with hard-wired versions.
Since opening in 2006, the bridge, which connects Verona Island and Prospect over the Penobscot River, has become known for attracting people in crisis. It replaced the Waldo-Hancock Bridge, which was also the site of numerous suicides over its 75 years in operation.
Neither the DOT nor the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office keep records of suicides on the bridge, but local media have reported at least eight.
The phones were added in 2015 — two on each side — to connect people in crisis with trained clinicians.
But the state has struggled to keep the phones online. This isn’t the first time the phones were found to not be working. In 2017, the Bangor Daily News found several of them were offline the same day authorities were searching for a possible person in the water.
An emergency bill introduced in 2014 to build a suicide prevention fence on the bridge also failed.
In the most recent case, the woman walked past one phone that appeared to be working, said Lt. Corey Bagley with the Hancock County Sheriff’s Office. The other on the Verona Island side of the bridge was taped up at the time.
“I don’t know why three of them gave out at the same time, but we’re frequently dealing with weather challenges up there,” Merrill said. “The handsets we have up there are heavy duty ones, and they still don’t like the cold temperatures and ice, hence the weekly checks.”
The phones couldn’t be repaired, Merrill said, so the DOT tested a single replacement unit. After confirming it would work, the DOT ordered replacements for the remaining phones, which were installed on Nov. 23.
All four phones are now new models that officials hope will cut down on outages. DOT also has a spare and said it will continue to check them weekly.
When working, the phones connect automatically with the Maine Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112. The state doesn’t track how often the phones are used. But the hotline is available 24-hours a day, seven days a week and connects with a clinician.
The phones, which feature a sign that reads “There is help. Make the call. You are not alone,” offer an opportunity for a person who may be struggling to reach out for help, said Marley.
“If you can help them through the crisis, most of the time … they reconnect with life,” said Greg Marley, the clinical director and director of suicide prevention at National Alliance on Mental Illness of Maine. “We believe strongly that suicide prevention works.”