In a major milestone for suicide prevention, the Golden Gate Bridge Board of Directors last week approved the first funding toward construction of a suicide barrier on the San Francisco landmark, a project that was first approved in 2014. The move will undoubtedly save lives — but even more importantly, it carries with it a lesson about suicide prevention that can help us all be better prepared to save a life.
Since its opening in 1937, the Golden Gate Bridge has earned the macabre title of the most popular suicide spot in the United States and the second most popular site in the world, with about 1,600 people confirmed to have died from jumping off the bridge and many others thought to have gone uncounted. Unlike other major national and international landmarks with a history of suicide attempts — such as the Empire State Building, the Eiffel Tower and the Sydney Harbour Bridge — the Golden Gate Bridge has not been renovated to include a suicide barrier.
In 2013, the number of people either trying to or successfully jumping off the world famous structure to commit suicide reached a record high of 164, a figure that includes 46 deaths and 118 suicide attempts that were stopped by bridge workers. Despite decades-long opposition from local residents concerned with the aesthetic aspects of the barrier, the alarming rise in “jumpers” prompted officials to take action, and in June 2014, the Golden Gate Bridge District’s Board of Directors voted unanimously to build a suicide barrier.
Last week, the Board approved $355,000 in funding to hire a consulting firm as a first step in the project, with the the $76 million contract expected to be awarded by March. The steel net could be finished in three and a half years, according to San Francisco’s ABC7 News. Experts say construction of the safety net is just what is needed to prevent future deaths. “Scientific evidence says a barrier reduces suicides, because thoughts of suicide are transient,” Eve R. Meyer, executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, told The New York Times in 2014.
“At the split second I hit freefall, I didn’t want to die.”
This historic decision was of particular meaning to Kevin Hines. Kevin is one of only 34 people known to have survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. Like every other survivor of this typically fatal attempt, Kevin reported regretting his decision the moment he leapt from the bridge. As Kevin describes, “At the split second I hit freefall, I didn’t want to die. What did I just do? The voices were gone. I was right there, facing ultimate death… I said God, please let me live.”
Kevin is not alone in his experience of having severely self-destructive thoughts (or actual hallucinatory voices) telling him to end his life. These thoughts are familiar to people at risk for suicide, and they represent a dangerous state that can cloud a person’s thinking and judgment, disconnecting them from reality and their natural desire to live. Like so many others, Kevin reconnected to reality only a split second after acting on the will of his suicidal thoughts. His story has since become living proof that the suicidal state is transient and temporary, and the will to live can persevere. He has gone on to become an international speaker, author and powerful advocate for mental health and suicide prevention.
Kevin’s experience further exemplifies the necessity of restricting means for suicide. A 1978 study by Dr. Richard Seiden from the University of California, Berkeley showed that people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge rarely went on to die by suicide. Bridge barriers erected in suicide hotspots like the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England not only reduced the number of deaths by suicide on the bridge itself, but did not show an increase in suicide jumps elsewhere in the area. Similar conclusions have been drawn from restricting other highly lethal suicide means like firearms. A study published this year showed that hand gun laws were associated with significantly lower firearm suicide rates as well as a lower overall suicide rate.
“In a suicidal crisis, it’s all about time.”
Research has consistently debunked the myth that restricting suicide means in one area will only show a spike in suicide in another. As Dr. Seiden noted at the conclusion of his study, “The major hypothesis under test, that Golden Gate Bridge attempters will surely and inexorably ‘just go someplace else,’ is clearly unsupported by the data. Instead, the findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature.”
“In a suicidal crisis, it’s all about time,” Jill Harkavy-Friedman, vice president of research for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said in a 2014 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.”
Making a method unavailable at the moment in which someone is in a suicidal crisis can keep them alive. Again, suicidal states are transient and temporary; they fluctuate over time. Making it more difficult for someone to access the means for suicide can provide them the time and space necessary to awaken from the trance of acute suicidality, to get to the help they need and, ultimately, save their lives. So, how can we get people to the help they need? What can we do on an individual level to help prevent suicide? With World Suicide Prevention Day coming up on Sep. 10, we can all take a little time to learn how we ourselves can act as a suicide barrier for someone in trouble.
The campaign Take 5 to Save Lives is doing a great job of informing people of how taking just five minutes to get informed and involved can make you part of a larger movement to save lives. The campaign lists five steps we can all take right away to become more empowered in the fight to stop suicide. The steps include:
- Learning the warning signs to spot in someone who may be suicidal.
- Joining the movement by signing up to “Take 5” and sharing their message on social media.
- Spreading the word by telling five people about World Suicide Prevention Day.
- Offering support by learning what to do if you encounter a person in trouble.
- Reaching out if you or a friend needs help. Learn who you can talk to and where you can go.
Warning Signs for Suicide Can Include:
- Disrupted sleep
- Loss of interest in activities
- Extreme self-denial, lack of pleasure
- Extreme self-hatred
- Feelings of not belonging
- Thinking of self as a burden to others
- Sudden positive mood change
- Suicidal talk
Suicide is often swept under the rug and not talked about out in the open. Yet, almost one in five people have been personally impacted by a suicide. The most recent data show that suicide is the tenth-leading cause of death in the United States and the third-leading cause of death among young people ages 10-24, accounting for more than 41,000 deaths annually. After fifteen years of declining rates, suicide has been on the rise for eight years in a row now. Despite these glaring realities, discussing suicide is still taboo. We can all do our part to remove the stigma by taking the subject out of the shadows. When it comes to suicide, one moment can make a difference, and a little knowledge can be the light that saves a life.
If you or someone you know is in crisis or in need of immediate help, call 1-800-273-TALK (8255). This is The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, a free hotline available 24 hours a day to anyone in emotional distress or suicidal crisis.