After 60 years of refusing, the people who run the Golden Gate Bridge are moving toward installing a suicide barrier, the New York Times reports. As soon as May, the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District is expected to approve construction of a steel mesh net 20 feet below the California landmark's sidewalk.
A record 46 people jumped to their deaths from the span in 2013, and another 118 were stopped before they could. According to the Times, they have tended to be younger than in the past.
Experts have long known, and good research shows, that barriers are highly effective at halting suicides, the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States at 38,364 fatalities in 2010. This is true not just of bridges or other high places: locking up firearms and individually bubble-wrapping pills both limit suicides by those methods, said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
The key is the characteristics of a person on the verge of committing suicide, even someone who has been contemplating it for a while. Suicides are impulsive acts, and the people who commit them are not thinking clearly, have trouble solving problems, have difficulty shifting gears and weigh risks differently. If thwarted in that first, impulsive attempt, they often do not adjust and seek another way to take their lives, Harkavy-Friedman said.
"In a suicidal crisis, it's all about time," she said. "They're going to grab whatever is available. They don't change gears if that is thwarted, because they have rigid thinking in that moment. They're not thinking about dying. They're thinking about ending the pain.
"If they get to the bridge and there is a barrier, they're not going to shift gears. It's as simple as that."
Evidence of that comes from a 2011 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry, which found that construction of barriers on the Clifton suspension bridge in Bristol, England--a known suicide "magnet"--did not result in additional suicides from other unprotected places. Here in Washington, D.C., erection of barriers on the Duke Ellington Bridge, did not increase suicides on the nearby, and unprotected, William Howard Taft Bridge, according to Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology.
Many people who attempt suicide, of course, are suffering from depression and other mental illnesses. "They’re not thinking about dying. They’re thinking about ending the pain," Harkavy-Friedman said.
Suicide magnets like the Golden Gate Bridge earn their reputations largely through media coverage, Berman and Harkavy-Friedman said, and, of course, because jumpers know they will get the job done.
"If I'm feeling suicidal and I then get the notion that there is a place that will do the job, and no less I'm going to get in the paper, then I'm going to go there," Berman said.