San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge set a macabre record last year, as the number of people either trying to or successfully jumping off the world famous structure to commit suicide reached 164, a figure that includes 46 deaths and 118 suicide attempts that were stopped by bridge workers. The rising death rate — and plummeting average age of those trying to jump off the bridge — has now prompted officials to reverse decades of policy and install a safety barrier as soon as late May to prevent suicide deaths, the New York Times reports.
Local residents have historically opposed the construction of a safety barrier over aesthetic concerns. But officials say it’s an imperative provision for battling the bridge’s status as one of the most popular suicide spots in the nation. About 1,600 people have ended their lives on the Golden Gate Bridge, and suicide is among the top three causes of death for young people in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC).
“Young people think the bridge is a perfect place to go,” Dr. Mel Blaustein, medical director of psychiatry at St. Francis Memorial Hospital in San Francisco, explained in an interview with the New York Times. “There is a misconception that [jumping off is] painless.”
Some have raised concerns that the barrier will amount to little more than a pointless eyesore, since people can just commit suicide by another method. But as the Washington Post’s Lenny Bernstein points out, the available data pretty clearly shows that suicide safety nets on bridges are effective.
For instance, studies show that installing barriers on popular suicide spots such as the Clifton Bridge in Bristol, England and the Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington, D.C. did not lead to an uptick of people using other nearby, unprotected bridges for committing suicide.
Mental health experts also stress that suicide attempts tend to be spontaneous decisions that eventually seem less palatable once a suicidal person has had some time to think things over. Richard Seiden, a former University of California, Berkeley public health professor, tracked unsuccessful suicide attempts from the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 to 1971. His findings were staggering — more than 90 percent of the people who tried but failed to commit suicide over that time period were still alive in 1978.
“In a suicidal crisis, it’s all about time,” said Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, in an interview with the Washington Post. “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.”