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Monday, October 13, 2008

Suicide Barrier: Golden Gate Bridge

By John Bateson, Executive Director, Contra Costa Crisis Center

Last week the Golden Gate Bridge District Board of Directors voted to erect a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge. The vote, 14-1 in favor, was the first time the directors have ever publicly supported a barrier. It came 71 years after the first suicide from the bridge. It also followed a year in which 37 people died jumping off the Golden Gate—the highest total in more than 10 years. The Golden Gate Bridge is the top suicide magnet in the world. No other site is close.

Since it opened in 1937, there have been more than 1,300 confirmed deaths. The actual number undoubtedly is higher as the bodies of some jumpers never are found. By comparison, suicide barriers on other international landmarks—the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, St. Peter’s Basilica, Sydney Harbour Bridge, and the Duomo—were erected after no more than half that number.

For years, opponents of a barrier have ignored the tears of families who have lost loved ones and the pleas of mental health professionals to end these tragic and unnecessary deaths. Opponents have cited aesthetic concerns, which are legitimate, and a belief that barriers don’t matter because suicidal people will just kill themselves another way—a notion that’s contrary to all empirical evidence.

The vast majority of people who are suicidal fixate on one means of death. If it’s closed to them, they choose to live.

This is a fact that’s hard to understand if you’ve never contemplated suicide, yet it’s true. All of the research—and there’s a lot if it—says so.

The bridge district’s vote was historic; however, it’s only the beginning. Next April an environmental impact report will be completed, and after that funding needs to be raised. Officials estimate that construction of a barrier is at least three to five years away.

That makes this a good news, bad news story. The good news is that there’ll be a barrier one day. The bad news is that until then, people will continue to die. The existing railing is only four feet high and easy to climb over. In 2005, a 75 year-old woman who was overweight did it no problem.

It’s also a bad news story in that the only option the bridge district board voted for, among five that were considered, is a steel net under the bridge. Public polls suggest that this option has the greatest support.

From afar, a net will impact aesthetics more than any other option. That’s not my worry, though.

Nets are the least effective form of suicide barrier. People can land in a net and still jump from it to their deaths. Nets also present risks to safety workers who are charged with pulling jumpers from them.

Higher, insurmountable railings eliminate these problems. In addition, higher railings would increase the bridge’s wind resistance, according to engineering studies. A net, in contrast, may worsen it.

My agency provides grief counseling to hundreds of families, some of whom are mourning a loved one’s jump. Viewed through their eyes, the Golden Gate Bridge is neither majestic nor beautiful. Instead, like any death scene, it evokes pain and misery.

That can’t change soon enough for me.

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