A Fence May Stop Some Bridge Suicides, but Building It Is Controversial

June 12, 2015 Updated: June 11, 2015

NEW YORK—Over 100 million vehicles cross the George Washington Bridge each year. It’s the busiest automobile bridge in the world. Honking cars, buses, and trucks brake and thrust, brake and thrust. Yet amid the monotonous chaos, 10 people jumped to their deaths in 2015, including two strangers who leaped within minutes of each other.

The George Washington Bridge is not a beautiful place to die. The narrow walkway is filled with zooming cyclists, billowing plastic bags, rusty railings, and empty dulce de leche ice cream cups.

Yet many go there to do just that.

In 2014, bridge patrol officers saved 74 people from jumping off the bridge. This year, so far they’ve prevented 26.

Falling off the George Washington Bridge, or any bridge for the most part, is a painful way to kill oneself. Some jumpers do not land in the water.  There’s crushed spines. And slow, internal bleeding. If a jumper does manage to plunge into the Hudson River, he or she needs several tedious inhales of mirky, green water before death arrives.

It is a problem that the Port Authority of New York & New Jersey has began grappling with in the last few years.

In 2014, the Port Authority worked with psychologists to develop a suicide intervention protocol, said Joseph Pentangelo, Port Authority’s senior police public information officer. It also sought advice from the Golden Gate Bridge Patrol, which has to deal with the highest bridge suicide rate in the world.

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In addition to car patrols, the Port Authority has at least two patrol officers assigned to walk the bridge to look for pedestrians with signs of depression and disorientation. They talk to people, ask them how they’re doing.

But merely having officers patrol the bridge is not enough. Last year, 18 people jumped and died.

Last spring, the Port Authority approved a $47 million project to install a 9-foot fence along both sides of the mile-long crossing, but it won’t be completed until 2024.

The barriers are part of a larger vision to replace the bridge’s 592 suspender ropes, replace the north and south sidewalks, and provide enhanced pedestrian and bicycle access ramps.

It’s also a major engineering challenge to make sure the dimensions are right, a Port Authority representative said. If built incorrectly the fence would catch strong winds, which could cause the bridge deck to bend.

Suicide prevention activists argue that local governments throughout the United States should have begun working on creating bridge barriers sooner.

Port Authority officials told The Associated Press that it did not start recording annual suicide deaths until 2013, and only in recent years have suicides been a problem for them. 

Bridge Aesthetics 

Even in problem areas, for decades there has been a reluctance among U.S. municipalities to build bridge barriers.

Since the 1970s, activists have been pushing for the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District to build suicide prevention fences or nets.

To date, there have been more than 1,600 suicide deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge since its creation in 1937. Yet the iconic San Francisco bridge still doesn’t have any barriers.

Critics of Golden Gate Bridge barriers said they would be pointless. Suicidal people will only go somewhere else. Why waste time and mar the beauty if they’re only going to go somewhere else?

Research has found that after the first failed attempt, most jumpers do not go on to kill themselves.

For decades, the agency’s board has cited concerns that such barriers would lessen the beauty of the bridge.

SAN FRANCISCO - JANUARY 27: The Golden Gate Bridge is seen January 27, 2005 in San Francisco. A controversial film made by moviemaker Eric Steel documenting people committing suicide off of the Golden Gate Bridge has opened a debate about why there isn't a suicide barrier on the famous landmark. Over 1,300 people have jumped to their death from the span since the bridge opened in 1937. (Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)
The Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco which was featured in a documentary about suicides in 2006. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images)

Barriers do bring that risk. New York University installed suicide barriers along the 12-story atrium of its library in 2012. The barriers, which are aluminum screens, can remind one of a jail cell. 

“All proposed designs mar the perfect aesthetics of the bridge. DO NOT destroy the current design,” Christopher Adams wrote in a public comment in 2008 regarding the proposal to build Golden Gate Bridge barriers.

But research has found that after the first failed attempt, most jumpers do not go on to kill themselves.

In a 1978 study, “Where Are They Now?” Richard H. Seiden, a former professor at the University of California–Berkeley School of Public Health, found that of the people who attempted suicide off the Golden Gate Bridge from 1937 to 1971, more than 90 percent were still alive in 1978 or had died of natural causes.

Yet it wasn’t until 2014 that the agency’s board approved a plan to spend $76 million to build nets that will extend 20 feet from both sides of the bridge. People who jump anyway may be injured, but they won’t die. The net would be made of stainless steel cable and would collapse slightly if someone jumped in, rendering it difficult to get out without assistance from patrol officers.

The Golden Gate Bridge’s net will take three years to build.

The Impulse

Psychiatry researchers have found, through interviewing suicide attempt survivors, that in many instances the act is impulsive—with only minutes passing between the first suicidal thought and the attempt to kill oneself.

According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 90 percent of people who die by suicide had a mental disorder at the time of their death. And disorders can be treated.

Jumpers tend to regret their decisions almost immediately.

“I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped,” Ken Baldwin, a bridge suicide survivor, told The New Yorker.

Kevin Hines, who jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge at age 18, regretted his decision too as he fell. On his website, he describes how he positioned himself to hit the water feet first. He suffered serious injuries to his spine, and nearly lost his ability to walk. But he survived and became a global spokesman for suicide prevention and bridge barriers.

Barriers as Art

“Research says the only intervention that fully works is barriers,” said Christopher Gandin Le, a suicide prevention specialist who helped write Facebook’s and Myspace’s suicide prevention protocols.

If you can’t jump that moment then you won’t jump. It’s all about that moment.
— Christopher Gandin Le, suicide prevention specialist

“More so than phone lines, more so than public awareness pieces,” Gandin Le said, “If you can’t jump that moment then you won’t jump. It’s all about that moment.”

Suicide barriers don’t have to be unsightly.

Gandin Le was a finalist for the TED Prize 2015 for his work, in which he proposes that cities commission artists to create aesthetically pleasing barriers at suicide hotspots. Why not have large-scale public art that can serve as a suicide barrier?

A rendering of an artistic suicide barrier at Beachy Head in England, where 20 people die from suicide each year. (Courtesy of Christopher Gandin Le)
A rendering of an artistic suicide barrier at Beachy Head in England, where 20 people die from suicide each year. (Courtesy of Christopher Gandin Le)

He is currently in talks with the Palo Alto, California government to build an artful barrier by its notorious train tracks where clusters of teenagers have committed suicide.

Gandin Le envisions frosted windows that prevent people from stepping onto tracks, a phone, and a quiet room where if someone intervened they can sit and talk to the person.

“We’re hoping within the next year we can do it,” he said.

How to Help Someone

Treatment is available. Suicidal thinking is usually associated with problems that can be treated, such as clinical depression and anxiety disorders that produce profound emotional distress. Studies show that the vast majority of people who receive appropriate treatment improve or recover completely.

Even if one has received treatment before, he or she should know that different treatments work better for different people in different situations. Several tries are sometimes necessary before the right combination is found.

Suicidal thoughts are temporary. Suicidal crises are almost always temporary. Solutions are found, feelings change, unexpected positive events occur. Suicide is sometimes referred to as “a permanent solution to a temporary problem.” 

Things will change if given time. Problems are seldom as great as they appear at first glance. Job loss, financial problems, loss of important people—all such stressful events can seem catastrophic at the time they are happening. Sometimes, imagining oneself “five years down the road” can help one to see that a problem that currently seems catastrophic will pass.

Source: Suicide Prevention Center of NY

If someone you know exhibits warning signs of suicide, do not leave the person alone. Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs, or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt. Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) or take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional.