PHOTO: Trish Merelo (left) and Congressman-elect Mark Green (right) during Green’s town hall in Franklin Tuesday night. / Photo by Alexander Willis
BY ALEXANDER WILLIS
Congressman-elect Mark Green held a town hall meeting Tuesday night in Franklin where politics were discussed, debated and even argued – sometimes heatedly. One issue discussed, however, seemed to draw unilateral support from both Green and everyone in attendance – the desire to prevent further suicides at Natchez Trace Bridge.
Located approximately eight miles northwest of downtown Franklin, the Natchez Trace Bridge has seen dozens of suicides since its opening in 1994. Proponents of more preventative measures have faced obstacles in rallying their representatives to implement such features, as the bridge is maintained by the National Park Service, a body of the federal government, and not the state.
Early on in the town hall meeting, Spring Hill resident Trish Merelo, one of the founders of the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition, brought up the topic of implementing suicide prevention features on the bridge.
“We are organizing, and the mission is to raise the railing from 32 inches high,” Merelo said to Green. “This has been kept really quiet and swept under the rug, and it’s time to fix this problem.”
While many can relate to wanting to help prevent future suicides, the issue is of particular importance to Merelo. Merelo’s 17-year-old son, John Miller, took his own life at the Natchez Trace Bridge in January of 2016.
Merelo’s story was previously featured on the Home Page, where she had said that she would like to do something in her son’s honor to help prevent future suicides. After viewing a screening in September of the film “Suicide: The Ripple Effect,” a film about a real-life suicide attempt at the Golden Gate Bridge, Merelo said that “that night was a bit of a game changer,” and would soon form the Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition, alongside Sarah Elmer, who had lost both her sister and a close friend at the bridge.
Green responded to Merelo by saying he did not want to make the Natchez Trace Bridge barriers a campaign issue for fear of extensive media coverage of the topic, which the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says can have a contagion effect, and in some cases, actually increase suicide rates.
“We will be fighting to get the railing fixed,” Green said. “If it were a state issue, I think we could have fixed it yesterday, but we’ve got to go to get the National Park Service to do what’s right. Any help that others in the community can give; calling Marsha’s office, calling Cohen’s office, calling other republican legislators, Senator Alexander – everybody. That would be great.”
The discussions Tuesday night regarding safety at Natchez Trace Bridge also happen to come in the wake of Williamson County Deputy Jim Zahn saving a 19-year-old college student from committing suicide at the bridge as recently as Monday, as reported on by WKRN News.
Merelo brought the recent incident up during the discussion with Green, illustrating that the issue is not going away on its own. Green later asked for help in identifying the deputy, saying “we need to get some recognition for that deputy – we need something for that individual.”
“I don’t know how anyone can watch that dash cam video and deny there’s a problem,” Merelo said. “If we take away these impulsive means, suicides will go down. It’s just a fact, it’s just common sense.”
In fact, limiting impulsive means of suicide, experts say, can be one of the most effective means of reducing overall suicide rates. One well-documented example goes to mid-20th century England, where asphyxiation from breathing oven fumes accounted for approximately half of all suicides. Ovens in Britain were primarily coal-based, which produced lots of carbon monoxide. After switching to natural gas ovens in the 1970s, suicides dropped by roughly 30 percent, and would remain reduced for decades thereafter.
While Merelo was supportive of Green, thanking him for his support and calling him “extremely responsive,” Merelo’s largest obstacle in seeing barriers placed on Natchez Trace Bridge seems to be the federal government.
“The National Park Service is very concerned about maintaining its historical integrity,” Merelo said. “It’s only 24 years old, but they’re looking ahead to the National Historic Register in 25 years when it’s 50, and any modifications to it render it ineligible for the register. There are very few exceptions of it made, so that’s a big part of the resistance from the park service. Hopefully, we can break through that a little bit.”
Green vowed support for the issue, but encouraged the public to contact their federal legislators to further help move the issue along.
Merelo said that she has future meetings planned with the National Park Service to discuss the issue, and that she is optimistic that she will see her goal realized.
“It’s a public health hazard that’s been ignored,” Merelo said. “The bridge is in Doctor Green’s District, so the action on the bridge starts with him.”