Suicide is one of those irrational acts that is still misunderstood and stigmatized, even amongst people who otherwise are okay with mainstream mental health concerns. Most people still don’t understand how someone could ever feel so despondent and depressed that they would want to end their own lives. I also suspect that at one time or another, a significant minority of people have thought about suicide, even if just in passing.
The New York Times Magazine had an article this past weekend about a different approach to suicide. Instead of only looking to help treat people most at risk for suicide (people who suffer from depression, for instance), public health officials are also looking at the common means in which suicide is committed.
One of those common means is jumping off a bridge. And one of the easiest preventions of jumping off a bridge is a simple, inexpensive fence. We’ve written previously about how we believe that bridges should be proofed against suicide and that a human life is worth more than a slightly-obstructed view.
Opponents to fences on bridges (known as a “suicide barrier” in these discussions) cite the belief that people will just find another way to commit suicide. And yet all of the research data we have suggests that for the vast majority of people, that is simply untrue. It’s one of those repeated false beliefs that has no backing of actual data.
That’s because suicide is an irrational act, but people engage in discussions about people who are temporarily suicidal as though they were making rational decisions and choices. “Hey, if they find a fence on our bridge, they’ll just go home and shoot themselves,” is one common refrain from opponents. Luckily for most people, this isn’t the case. People choose very specific means to end their lives, and they generally don’t switch between methods. And most don’t find other methods.
Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus and psychologist at the University of California, published a study showing that the vast majority of people who are thwarted from jumping from a bridge don’t go on to commit suicide:
In the late 1970s, Seiden set out to test the notion of inevitability in jumping suicides. Obtaining a Police Department list of all would-be jumpers who were thwarted from leaping off the Golden Gate between 1937 and 1971 — an astonishing 515 individuals in all — he painstakingly culled death-certificate records to see how many had subsequently “completed.” His report, “Where Are They Now?” (PDF) remains a landmark in the study of suicide, for what he found was that just 6 percent of those pulled off the bridge went on to kill themselves.
He also published a ground-breaking article (Seiden & Spence, 1982) that looked at the suicide rates between the two bridges in San Francisco, the Golden Gate and the Oakland Bay Bridge, and wasn’t surprised to find the Golden Gate is the more popular suicide magnet. One in which over 2,000 people have jumped to their deaths from since its opening in 1937.
Need more evidence? Another study conducted in England also found a significant reduction in suicides (more than 50%) after a fence was installed on the local bridge (Bennewith et al., 2007). Just as importantly, they also found no evidence of increased jumping from other sites in the geographic region due to the erection of the fences.
Now, despite this evidence, opponents still suggest that people simply go on to other means. Again, assuming that people are acting and thinking rationally. Which they aren’t (duh!):
“At the risk of stating the obvious,” Seiden said, “people who attempt suicide aren’t thinking clearly. They might have a Plan A, but there’s no Plan B. They get fixated. They don’t say, ‘Well, I can’t jump, so now I’m going to go shoot myself.’ And that fixation extends to whatever method they’ve chosen. They decide they’re going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge, or maybe they decide that when they get there, but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don’t look around for another place to do it. They just retreat.”
Now, while we can’t prevent all suicides, we can certainly make certain types of suicide a thing of the past. In one study about suicide in New York City (Gross et al., 2007), for instance, researchers found nearly a quarter of all successful suicides were from jumping from a tall structure, such as a bridge. A simple, tall fence would eliminate the vast majority of all of these jumping suicides overnight. It would be more effective than banning guns, knives, pools and bathtubs (drowning), or drugs, as it is the second most used method of suicide in this study (behind hanging and asphyxiation).
“The more obstacles you can throw up, the more you move it away from being an impulsive act. And once you’ve done that, you take a lot of people out of the game. If you look at how people get into trouble, it’s usually because they’re acting impulsively, they haven’t thought things through,” noted Matthew Miller, the associate director of the Injury Control Research Center, in the New York Times article. Time. That’s what most people who are thinking irrationally need. And that’s what a suicide barrier provides.
This misperception that we cannot stop people from hurting themselves is false — research data shows that we can. Because suicide is often an irrational, in-the-moment act, simple barriers are extremely effective in helping a person make the choice to live another day until the crisis has past.
The good news is that the Golden Gate Bridge District is moving forward with its work on choosing an appropriate design for a suicide barrier on the biggest suicide destination bridge in the world. While by no means a “sure thing,” it is good they are continuing their progress toward making the bridge suicide-proof. You can view the 5 designs here, 4 of which are fences (I like the openness of the third fence) and one of which is a net. The net is probably the option that provides the least interference with the aesthetics of the bridge, but I don’t see how it would prevent someone from simply climbing out of it and continuing on their downward journey.
In the meantime, 10 more people have died from the Golden Gate Bridge so far this year. Dozens more will die before a design is selected, money raised, and the barrier built.
This “band-aid” approach, as mentioned in the New York Times article, is relatively new in the public health sector and one that we support. While we can’t remove all methods of suicide and people will always commit suicide, we can take a common-sense approach and work to reduce some of the more popular and easy-to-fix methods.
Read the full article: The Urge to End It – Understanding Suicide
Bennewith, O., Nowers, M. & Gunnell, D. (2007). Effect of barriers on the Clifton suspension bridge, England, on local patterns of suicide: Implications for prevention. British Journal of Psychiatry, 190(3), 266-267.
Gross, C. et al. (2007). Suicide tourism in Manhattan, New York City, 1999-2004. Journal of Urban Health, 11(1), 1-11.
Seiden, R.H. (1978). Where Are They Now? A Follow-up Study of Suicide Attempters from the Golden Gate Bridge. Suicide and Life Threatening Behavior, 8(4), 1-13.
Seiden, R.H. & Spence, M.C. (1982). A tale of two bridges: Comparative suicide incidence on the Golden Gate and San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridges. Crisis: The Journal of Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention, 3(1), 32-40.