Are Bridges Suicide Magnets? They Don’t Have to Be!

Bridges are suicide magnets. But they don’t have to be. San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge has the unfortunate distinction of being the most popular suicide destination in the world. It has been the scene of 1,500 deaths by suicide, approximately 30 per year.

Results from a comprehensive study of suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge, conducted by the Marin County Coroner’s Office (2009), found that the “typical” jumper is a white (80%), male (74%), never married (56%), with a median age of 40.

The New York Times (July 6, 2008) reported on research conducted by Dr. Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus and clinical psychologist at the University of California at Berkeley School of Public Health. The Times reporter, Scott Anderson, reported that, “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?” 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. Even allowing for suicides that might have been mislabeled as accidents only raised the total to 10 percent.”

Dr. Seiden was quoted to conclude, “But to me, the more significant fact is that 90 percent of them…were having an acute temporary crisis, they passed through it and, coming out the other side, they got on with their lives.”

Closer to home, within a 30-day period earlier this year, two adults, on two separate occasions, drove to the center of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that links Brooklyn and Staten Island, and jumped to their deaths. Were these deaths preventable? I believe that they could have been.

Several years ago, in 2008, New York’s Metropolitan Transportation Authority (MTA) installed suicide-prevention phones on the Verrazano Bridge. However, they neglected to install adequate signs. Therefore, the phones are essentially invisible.

Since the phones’ installation, the only calls received by LIFENET, the suicide prevention hotline that is connected to them, are from MTA employees testing the phones and motorists whose cars have broken down, according to an editorial published by the Staten Island Advance.

But this is not the case on bridges outside of MTA jurisdiction. For example, the New York State Bridge Authority (NYSBA), in partnership with the Hudson River Coalition for the Prevention of Suicide, maintains an award-winning suicide prevention program.

Research has shown that fences and other physical barriers remain the most effective deterrents of suicide attempts from bridges. However, after considerable research that included mental health professionals, international experts, and law enforcement officials, the NYSBA implemented “a comprehensive package that utilizes technology, awareness and informed intervention.” (Comprehensive Plan for Suicide Prevention, 2007)

The successful NYSBA suicide prevention campaign is a combination of signage, access to LIFELINE, its suicide-prevention hotline, and assistance in informing potential suicide victims that there is help available. This interactive endeavor has produced positive results.
The suicide-prevention phones, appropriate signage, and public awareness campaigns are seen as “human barriers” to suicide (instead of, or in addition to, installing fences and other physical barriers), but only if a potential suicide victim knows that they are there and where they are located. According to the Poughkeepsie Journal (May 24, 2007), “… phones have been effective on the Mid-Hudson Bridge for more than two decades….” “More than 50 people have used them and have been persuaded not to jump.” (Although seven people did jump during that time, only one of them had used the phone, the Journal reported.)

According to NYS Police Sgt. Jaime Alvear (as reported by the Times Herald-Record), “The phones give us a chance to get there. Most people don’t want to do it, so they pick up the phone.” The Sergeant’s observations and comment actually paraphrase Dr. Seiden’s findings at the Golden Gate Bridge (as cited above): “… the more significant fact is that 90 percent of them … were having an acute temporary crisis, they passed through it and, coming out the other side, they got on with their lives.”

Meanwhile, at the Verrazano Bridge, the MTA, having already installed suicide-prevention phones, should fulfill its entire responsibility by installing prominent signs and initiating a strong public awareness campaign aimed at saving lives.

Could the next suicidal jumper be spared? Let’s make the attempt.

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