Suicide Prevention: 'Suicide Bridge' Reduces Impulse to Jump

Editors' Note: This is the first of three stories featured during National Suicide Prevention Week to explore not only what motivates people to kill themselves, but to highlight those who survive suicide attempts, witness them or work to prevent them.

Ryan Thurston remembers the first time he saw a man jump to his death from the Aurora Bridge, landing in the Seattle parking lot just beneath his office window in the fall of 2005.

"It was a balmy Seattle morning, a typical morning, checking email and chatting with co-workers," said Thurston, now 35. "I had a window looking out at the bridge. I glanced down at the parking lot and saw a guy head down, blood coming from his head. He was probably 20 yards away.

"At first I thought he had tripped, then we all looked at the bridge and could see his truck with the door open," he said.

It happened again a month later and continued "on a pretty regular basis," Thurston said.

By 2006, a record nine people in one year had jumped to their deaths from the bridge, including a 15-year-old girl.

But since last year, safety barriers have been in place, thanks in large part to efforts by Thurston, who, after being so traumatized, founded Seattle Friends, a suicide-prevention organization.

"Nothing had been done, there had been no concerted effort," he said a few days before Sunday's start of the 38th annual National Suicide Prevention Week.

But Thurston had another reason to get involved: A close college friend had taken his own life. "You see the impact on family and friends," he said.

Now, state transportation officials, who spent $4.8 million on the project, say guardedly that it is working.

More than 230 people have taken their lives at the Aurora Bridge, making it the second deadliest "suicide bridge" in the United States, behind the Golden Gate Bridge, according to Seattle Friends. Since 1995, 50 people have died, and more than half of the victims landed on the pavement and busy intersections below.

Broadly speaking, a federal study shows, 8.3 million Americans -- 3.7 percent of all adults -- have serious thoughts of suicide each year; 2.3 million make a plan and 1.1 million attempt suicide, resulting in an estimated 37,000 suicide deaths each year.

Some studies show that iconic bridges and other physical structures draw those with suicidal impulses, but if barriers are in place, many deaths can be prevented.

New York University in Lower Manhattan just completed the renovation of a 150-foot-tall space after a several students jumped to their deaths inside a library.

In 2003, after two suicides less than a month apart, the university installed 8-foot, plastic-glass walls in its library's atrium. But another student scaled the wall in 2009 and killed himself. Now, a new system of lace-like aluminum panels has been installed around the balconies and staircases.

Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., has also addressed its suicide problem by recently installing mesh nets on five bridges that cross gorges around campus. The school has had 27 such deaths between 1990 and 2010, 15 of them students.

Some experts argue that those intent on suicide will find a way, regardless of attempts to dissuade jumpers, but one study, reported in the New York Times story, "The Urge to End It All," suggests otherwise.

Two bridges in Washington, D.C., span the 125-foot deep Rock Creek gorge, the Ellington, famous as the "suicide bridge" with about four deaths a year, and the Taft, with fewer than two a year.

But after three people died in a 10-day period in 1985, the city erected barriers at the Ellington Bridge. Critics feared jumpers would just go to the Taft instead. But five years later, a study showed no suicides at the Ellington Bridge and no change at Taft. As a result, the overall suicide deaths went down in the nation's capital by 50 percent.

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."

Suicide Warning Signs

The fire station is only two blocks away from the bridge and "even 30 seconds to a minute buys enough time for them to get there," Phipps said.

Thurston, who now works in sales for IBM, said he believes the group's work is done, now that the opportunities to jump off the bridge are so much more difficult.

"You would have to be pretty strong to jump up to the top of the railing and pull yourself up and there's a spike on the top," he said. "So you would have to be pretty determined ... the barriers on the bridge give a person a chance to pause and rethink."

For help or to report a suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Center Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

The following are signs that might indicate the risk of a suicide attempt:

• Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves;

• Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun;

• Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live;

• Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain;

• Talking about being a burden to others;

• Increasing their use of alcohol or drugs;

• Acting anxious or agitated; behaving recklessly;

• Sleeping too little or too much;

• Withdrawing or isolating themselves.

• Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge.

• Displaying extreme mood swings.