Suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge
Last weekend I traveled to San Fransisco for a wedding. While there, I spent some time taking in the sights, including the famed Golden Gate Bridge. At the north end of the bridge, I found this crisis phone and a sign exhorting individuals considering suicide to, quite literally, call for help. The sign reads: “Crisis counseling. There is hope. Make the call. The consequences of jumping from this bridge are fatal and tragic.”
Since the Golden Gate Bridge was completed in 1937, more than 1300 individuals have jumped to their deaths from the 250-foot tall structure. There is a jumper on average every other week. Only 26 known individuals have survived the jump.
Despite the decidedly lethal nature of the bridge, constructing barriers to thwart would-be jumpers has been a hotly debated topic. The argument seems to come down to aesthetics vs. safety, suicide as a personal problem vs. suicide as a public health problem.
In a 2005 San Francisco Chronicle series on suicide and the Golden Gate Bridge, Dr. Jerome Motto, a psychiatrist, former president of the American Association of Suicidology, and long-time advocate of building a suicide barrier on the bridge emphasized:
If an instrument that’s being used to bring about tragic deaths is under your control, you’re morally compelled to prevent its misuse. A suicide barrier is a moral imperative.
Suicide barriers have been constructed on the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building; following their construction, suicide rates associated with both structures dropped considerably. But opponents of a Golden Gate Bridge barrier argue that it would mar the unparalleled view offered of and from the bridge. Jeffrey Heller, an architect and vocal critic of a barrier, stated in the 2005 Chronicle series:
When you look straight out, you’ll see through all this mesh, which will be sad enough, but looking straight down the roadway, it will become a cage. That is far too high a price for our society to pay.
As a mental health professional, my stance on the barrier debate is unequivocal: the price paid by society for the tragic loss of hundreds of lives – many of which could be prevented – is far greater than diminished aesthetics. Some argue that constructing barriers on the bridge will not actually prevent deaths, that individuals will simply find another means for suicide. But suicide is more often than not a highly impulsive act and removing easily accessed lethal means is one of the most important deterrents to suicide.
In 2008, after a 71-year debate, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway, and Transportation District finally voted to place stainless-steel netting beneath the bridge to catch potential jumpers. The Board’s action was spurred in part by the 2004 movie The Bridge, which documented the suicide deaths of 24 individuals over the course of a year. As of May, 2011, the project was moving into the final 18-month design stage, though funding for the $45 million net had not yet been identified. Officials have mandated that funding cannot be generated from bridge tolls.
Weaving my way through pedestrians and cyclists on the crowded path on the Bay side of the bridge, I took in the grandeur of the steel and concrete structure, while also keeping an eye on passers-by, wondering about their thoughts, their states of mind. The balance (or perhaps imbalance) of beauty and such deep despair struck me as I made my way back to land, buffeted by the strong wind, and lost in my own thoughts.
I hope that the net project continues to completion, that demand for a response to the public health crisis that is suicide does not diminish. To me, suicide prevention is a moral imperative; to look away when people are in the grips of suicidal despair is not an option.