Suicide Prevention: 'Suicide Bridge' Reduces Impulse to Jump

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Study of Golden Gate Bridge Says Deterrents Work

A University of California Berkeley study of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco analyzed potential jumpers who had been restrained, showing that the overwhelming majority did not go on to kill themselves at a different location.

The study was commissioned in 1978 before barriers were installed; 625 people had taken their lives in suicides since 1937 when the iconic bridge had been opened.

"A lot of people do this as a very impulsive act, especially from a public place, in kind of a private moment of crisis," said Thurston, whose complaints to Seattle officials about the suicides at the Aurora Bridge at first fell on deaf ears.

But after founding Seattle Friends, the group engaged the entire community in the project: the Fremont Chamber of Commerce, the Youth Suicide Prevention Program, the Department of Transportation and the City of Seattle.

"The issue wasn't only the suicides, but the effect on the people below," state Department of Transportation spokesman Greg Phipps said. "Hundreds of people are working under the bridge. They were literally encountering horrible sights of bodies in their parking lot on their way to work in the morning."

The Aurora Bridge is a huge, steel-truss structure, 70 feet wide; all but 13 feet of that is roadway. At its high point, the bridge is 155 feet above the water, the height of a 15-story building.

On one side spans an block where a number of offices, including Thurston's former employer, a semiconductor chip manufacturer, sit.

One jumper actually fell on an SUV while the driver was inside. The body struck the passenger side, and the driver was not hurt.

Suicide jumpers have also landed in the waters of Lake Union on the eastern side of the bridge, where one went through the roof of an unoccupied houseboat.

Boaters were also traumatized by jumpers who splashed near a 60- to 80-foot dock that is surrounded by houseboats and sailboats.

Initially, the group raised funds to help victims' families and launched and coordinated services to help them get past their grief. But addressing the bridge, which had an easily accessible pedestrian walkway, soon became equally as important.

"We never said we wanted to raise money for mental health," Thurston said. "We were very focused preventing suicide in that location."

At first the city installed call boxes so would-be jumpers could reach 911 and suicide hotlines, but they had no effect, Thurston said. Once the group convinced the city and state to erect barriers, they held a design competition to retain the beauty of the bridge with its panoramic views.

"We wanted as small a visual footprint as possible," Phipps of the DOT said. "The bridge is popular for photos. It's the signature bridge in the city, a postcard bridge in between two bodies of water."

There were constraints like height restrictions so the bridge crews could do inspections and clean the structure, as well as cost. Engineers also had to meet guidelines imposed on the state because the 1932 bridge was on the National Register of Historic Places.

The result was a series of vertical wires that are enclosed in a frame and paneled the length of the bridge on both sides. The project was complete in early 2011 and so far, only one confirmed suicide has been reported in 18 months, down from four to six in a given year, Phipps said.

"It does appear to be working, but it's also too early to draw any long-term conclusions," he said. "We are encouraged by what has happened so far.

"It's hard to quantify how many attempts have been thwarted," he said. "But it buys time for emergency responders to intervene and drivers to call 911 on the bridges."

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