PHOTO: Trish Merelo has fought to see barriers constructed along Natchez Trace Bridge for countless months, and is now finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. / Courtesy photo
WARNING: This story contains information about suicide. If you or a loved one is thinking about suicide, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL) at 1-800-273-8255. The NSPL provides 24-hour, free support to those in distress, as well as prevention and crisis resources for you or loved ones.
By ALEXANDER WILLIS
For many Williamson County residents, the recent announcement that the Natchez Trace Bridge will see the construction of barriers begin in 2023 came as a sign of progress – progress in preventing further suicides. Since the year 2000, 32 people have lost their lives to suicide at the Natchez Trace Bridge, a bridge that stands 155 feet above Highway 96 in the western side of the county.
But for Trish Merelo, the announcement was more than just a sign of progress. To her, having a concrete date as to when barriers will begin construction was also the culmination of years’ worth of struggles, perseverance and advocacy.
The issue of preventing further suicides at the Natchez Trace Bridge is of such particular importance to Merelo due to a personal loss of her own. In January of 2016, her then 17-year-old son, John Miller, lost his life to suicide at the bridge.
While not knowing exactly what to do, Merelo did know she needed to do something to honor her son’s memory, and to help those struggling with mental illness. Finally, after connecting with another suicide loss survivor who had also lost a loved one at the bridge, Sarah Elemer, the two joined together to form the ‘Natchez Trace Bridge Barrier Coalition.’
After months of spreading her message far and wide, as well as writing and reaching out to countless elected officials, National Park Service staff and others, Merelo finally saw the first step of her goal get underway – officially – with the announcement on Tuesday.
“We’re thrilled to have the National Park Service state – on record – their intentions, their plans… and the allocation of the $1.2 million now just makes it very real,” Merelo said. “We knew the Park Service was heading this way, we’ve had some very positive discussions with them, but this is the strongest show of intent we have seen so far, and it hopefully [it] is going to be moving forward, not backward, at this point.”
While ecstatic at the recent news, Merelo said it was a long, hard fought battle from the beginning.
“In the beginning in our talks with the Park Service, we felt that there were so many restrictions about modifying this bridge… it seemed much more difficult about a year ago,” Merelo said. “We knew that others had made attempts to get something done as far back as 2010; the Tennessee Suicide Prevention Network tried to get something done, and got as far as the two signs put up with the National Lifeline number on it, and we knew how hard it was for them to just get that done, so we knew this wasn’t going to be easy.”
Merelo continued, recounting how layers upon layers of bureaucratic tape seemed to halt her and her mission at every step of the way.
“Our first months of conversations with the Park Service were very tough,” Merelo said. “They stated restriction after restriction, rule after rule that couldn’t be broken on federal structures, particularly a federal structure that has been slated for the Historic Register, and had won 16 design awards. We were told any change to the structure would have to be approved by this, this and that committee, and every idea we had was shot down, so there was a little bit there where it didn’t seem [like] we were going to go about this easily.”
Thankfully, Merelo said, the support for her mission became so strong among the community, that she believed the sheer number of people calling for action became too great for the National Park Service to ignore.
“Then we just received so much support, and this is where Senator Bill Frist [came] in, and Senator Lamar Alexander, Congressman Mark Green, Representative Sam Whitson… we just had just this perfect storm of support from all angles,” Merelo said. “I can’t speak for them, but I think the Park Service at that point said, ‘we get it – we’ve got to get serious about this… let’s get to work.’”
Regarding the date that construction on the barriers is expected to begin – nearly four years out at this point – Merelo actually considered the date to be more than fair, given her personal experience in dealing with the federal government.
“Beginning construction in 2023, to me, actually seems fair,” Merelo said. “I know people say to me, ‘how can you wait so long,’ but there’s a lot of work that has to go into this. They have to make sure whatever is decided upon that the bridge can hold it – there’s a lot of engineering here. Going back to the federal protective status, there are environmental studies that have to be done… there’s quite a bit of work. At the pace that the federal government moves, I actually think to begin construction in 2023 is realistic and fair.”
Another recent announcement made public on Tuesday was that the Natchez Trace Bridge would also see two emergency call boxes ready and operational by August 27, something Merelo said was “terrific.”
“I see them as a supplement to the end game of getting a barrier put in, but they’re certainly a help, they won’t hurt – anything to interrupt that train of thought for someone who is in a suicidal crisis,” Merelo said. “A lot of folks who go there who intend to take their life, they purposely leave their phone at home. We also know that cell phone coverage out there is not so good, so this will serve as something for the person who is in crisis, who thinks there’s nowhere to go, [that] there’s no help to get, [that] there’s no hope.”
Merelo is a strong proponent of the idea of limiting impulsive means of suicide, which she argues can greatly reduce successful suicide attempts
Limiting impulsive means of suicide, experts say, can indeed 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 heavy amounts of carbon monoxide. After switching to natural gas ovens in the 1970s, suicides dropped by roughly 30%, and would remain reduced for decades thereafter.
“If they see these boxes out there, they might just give it a shot and pick up that phone,” Merelo said. “Anything that buys them time, we are all about because the suicidal crisis is a moment. If we can extend [that moment] – give them five minutes, give them an hour, give them a day – we buy them time, and we buy them a chance to see that darkness lift.”
Ultimately, Merelo said one of the most important things people can do to help prevent suicides is to bring mental health issues back into the forefront of public conversation, and to see the stigma around openly talking about mental illness for what it is – a barrier to those suffering from such illnesses to seek help.
“The thing about the bridge is those in crisis have always known it’s out there – it’s everyone else in the community that has been in the dark,” Merelo said. “It hasn’t been talked about in the press, it hasn’t been announced by the Park Service or the Sheriff’s Office, it’s just been this terrible little secret. And I understand why it’s not discussed; there is the fear of contagion, but at the same time, it had to come out in the open. It was festering, and it needed to be dealt with.”