More people are using highways to harm themselves, including the 40-year-old man who jumped to his death off the South Willow Street bridge over Interstate 293 on Monday, according to a New Hampshire State Police official.
Three have done so this year in the Manchester-Nashua area, according to Lt. Bryan Trask. Trask oversees the state police barracks that patrols the highways in the state’s two largest cities.
“I’m not sure why, but all of a sudden it’s happening more,” Trask said. In the past, a highway suicide would happen about once a year, he said.
His observation would be in line with national trends, which show an increase in suicide rates. A study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed that the national suicide rate increased 25 percent over a 17-year period ending in 2016.
The increase in New Hampshire’s suicide rate was the third-highest among the 50 states.
“For some reason, we’ve gotten away from talking about suicide and it’s caught up with us,” said Rik Cornell, a mental health counselor and spokesman for the Mental Health Center of Greater Manchester.
That came into play on Monday morning, when Manchester resident Richard Newton, 40, reportedly climbed fencing on the South Willow Street overpass and jumped. Two vehicles struck him, and he was pronounced dead at the scene.
Newton was due to face trial next month in Hillsborough County Superior Court on two rape charges and a burglary charge. About two years ago, Newton was involved in a three-hour standoff in Medford, Mass., when he entered a radio station with an ax and demanded they play “My Axe” by Insane Clown Posse, according to media reports at the time.
He was also a registered sex offender, stemming from a 2000 conviction in Florida involving sex with a teenager.
Newton is the latest in Trask’s list of three people harming themselves on Manchester-Nashua highways. A woman died on the F.E. Everett Highway in Nashua in May, and a man jumped in front of traffic on I-293 earlier this year. He survived.
Trask said his department will investigate Newton’s background, concentrating on his last 24 hours. Investigators will speak to family members and the Medical Examiner will order toxicology tests.
Newton, whose addres is 895 Hayward St., Manchester, was indicted last year on a burglary and two rape charges, and prosecutors had filed for extended sentences.
He was free on a $35,000 bail bond, and jury selection was slated for Aug. 19.
On July 10, 2017, Medford police arrested Newton with a car full of weapons and unopened beers, Boston’s NBC-10 reported. He had an ax, two combat-type knives and three folding knives, a shovel, vaping oil and unopened beers in his car, the station reported.
Medford police Lt. Paul Covino said police arrested Newton on a disorderly conduct and failure to stop for a police officer.
“He was in a bad state. He was obviously having some issues he was dealing with,” Covino said.
In such an instance, an arrest puts a defendant before a court clinician, who will determine if commitment or treatment is necessary. Covino said police department records don’t specify what happened to Newton once he went to court.
Cornell said there’s no easy explanation for an increase in suicide. People with drug and alcohol addictions don’t feel they have a way out. Teens and young adults, who experience suicide at high rates, collapse under career pressure and financial stress.
The CDC study shows that New Hampshire’s rate of suicide in 1999 to 2001 — 13.5 suicides per 100,000 — climbed to 20 by 2014-16.
The rates of suicide for New Hampshire men is three times that of women, according to the study.
Cornell noted that other statistics show suicide as the second leading cause of death for teens and young adults.
Cornell said he was surprised when he saw the fence that Newton had reportedly climbed to position himself over the highway.
While the interior of the fence curves inward, anyone could easily access the exterior of the fence by jumping on a guardrail from a sidewalk and latching onto the fence’s concave side, which is easier to climb.
“That fence ended at the end of the bridge. You could literally walk around it. That defeats the purpose of the fence,” Cornell said.
He said a lot of people don’t go through with a suicide when something — such as a fence that truly blocks access — stops them or gives them time to think.
He noted that his predecessor at the mental health agency, Ken Snow, had pressed for the state to install such fences when in early projects.
But a state Department of Transportation official said the fences are designed to prevent anyone from throwing objects onto a highway. He said they are installed on nearly all overpasses, even over secondary highways.
“They’re not specifically for suicide prevention. They’re much more to prevent vandalism,” said Assistant Transportation Commissioner Bill Cass.
Cornell noted that the Mobile Crisis Response Team was called to the scene Monday to speak to the drivers of the two vehicles that struck Newton and other people who witnessed the event.
In the past, police or fire responders would have to console the witnesses.
“Ten years ago, even three years ago that would have never happened,” Cornell said.
How to get help
Following is contact information for anyone in need of help:
National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255.
Mobile Crisis Response Team: 800-688-3544
National Alliance on Mental Illness (for family support): 800-242-6264.