Suicide Magnet – Part II: No Barrier to Despair

Suicide Magnet – Part II: No Barrier to Despair

Other cities have installed barriers on their bridges to prevent suicides. But no such movement is afoot in San Diego. Photo: Sam Hodgson

This is the second entry of a two-part series on suicides and the Coronado Bridge. Read the first part here.

Friday, May 2, 2008 | Back in the 1980s, the San Diego-Coronado Bay Bridge had a problem: People kept jumping to their deaths, 16 in one year alone.

The California Department of Transportation, which operates the bridge, asked local mental-health advocates for help. Drew Leavens, the chief of suicide prevention for the county at the time, told Caltrans to install a barrier.

Others agreed, including a coalition of Coronado church leaders. The father of a 17-year-old bridge suicide victim told a San Diego newspaper that a barrier made sense. The Coronado City Council threw its support behind the idea.

As Leavens recalls it, Caltrans was unmoved.

“Their approach was, ‘One, we don’t want to spend any money. Two, we don’t want to screw up the prettiness of the bridge. Three, we don’t want to be sued and we don’t want to screw up our maintenance. We just want the suicides to stop or at least slow down.’”

No barrier appeared. The bridge railing remained about three feet high.

Caltrans did put up some signs on the bridge noting the phone number of a suicide hotline, and emergency phones appeared. And that, Leavens said, was that.

The signs — and one of the phones — remain today. But should more be done? A barrier, perhaps, or more phones? Or will prevention simply move the problem elsewhere?

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For years, Toronto city leaders listened politely to a man named Al Birney and did nothing.

A retiree with a schizophrenic son and an interest in mental health, he was appalled as the suicide toll from Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct bridge neared 400 in the late 1990s.

Build a barrier, he said. It’s too expensive, he was told.

In 1999, according to a news report, he made headway with an emotional plea: “What price a life? Obviously you don’t have mental illness in your own homes, otherwise you’d understand.”

Four years later, a barrier — a striking screen of steel called the Luminous Veil — was finally added to the bridge. No one has jumped from the 90-year-old structure since.

Anti-suicide advocates in three West Coast cities hope they’ll follow in the footsteps of Birney, who died in 2007 and is remembered in a plaque on the Toronto bridge.

In San Francisco, officials are studying whether to install a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, the site of more than 1,250 suicides in the past 71 years. In Seattle, officials have approved a barrier for Aurora Bridge, where many jumpers land in a parking lot below.

And in the Santa Barbara area, public protests convinced Caltrans to consider a barrier at the Cold Spring Bridge, where an average of about one person a year commits suicide.

“If you have a barrier you prevent suicide,” said Leavens, the former suicide prevention chief. “It’s as simple as that.”

Not exactly, says a political science professor. He argues that there’s no evidence that the suicidal simply give up when they can’t kill themselves where they want to.

♦♦♦

Garrett Glasgow, who teaches at the University of California Santa Barbara, does acknowledge the obvious: barriers can prevent suicides at specific places. But as for stopping people from killing themselves elsewhere, “we just don’t know if they work or not,” he said. “They might save lives, they might not.”

In the world of suicide prevention, this idea is nothing short of sacrilege, especially in light of a widely cited 1978 University of California Berkeley study of 515 people who were prevented from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971. Only 4.9 percent went on to commit suicide during those years.

“There’s little question that (barriers) can be quite effective,” said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. “There is some substitute method that is sought by a proportion of would-be jumpers, but the great proportion are deterred and do not go to another method. We have pretty good data to support that.”

But the U.C. Berkeley study is inadequate, said Glasgow, who has tried to convince state official to think more about installing a barrier at the Cold Spring Bridge.

For one thing, the people studied weren’t stopped by a barrier, they were stopped by human intervention. For another, the study doesn’t examine whether the subjects were “serious about committing suicide,” as Glasgow puts it in a written report, or making a “cry for help.”

“If it is the latter, it would be a mistake to count them as examples of the lives suicide prevention barriers could save if they never intended to die in the first place,” Glasgow writes.

He acknowledges, however, that no study may resolve the debate over whether barriers result in fewer suicides overall. “It may be impossible to conclusively know one way or another,” he said. “That is true.”

♦♦♦

Here in San Diego County, suicide barriers appear to have cut deaths from a bridge and a college dormitory.

Balboa Park’s scenic Cabrillo Bridge, which carries pedestrians and cars high above Highway 163, lacked fencing and became known as a “suicide bridge” in the early decades of the 20th century.

The Cabrillo Bridge in Balboa Park. Photo: Sam Hodgson

According to a 1934 San Diego Union story, 40 people had fatally jumped at the Cabrillo Bridge since it opened in 1915. Suicidal people “were jumping off and landing on cars, landing on innocent people,” said Leavens, the county’s former suicide prevention chief.

By the early 1950s, city leaders had enough. Three days after a female college student jumped to her death in 1950, San Diego’s acting city manger ordered that a barrier be installed. The City Council also discussed installing a net to catch jumpers.

Fencing with inverted spikes now protects the section of the bridge over Highway 163. People still kill themselves there, however. Four have jumped to their deaths from the bridge within the past decade.

(Fencing has not solved the suicide problem at another notable Southern California bridge — the Colorado Street Bridge across the Arroyo Seco gorge in Pasadena. City leaders voted in 1937 to erect a fence after 88 people died in jumps over 25 years. However, suicides there continue.)

At U.C. San Diego, four people jumped from the roof of the 11-story Tioga Hall in the 1970s and 1980s. The third suicide, in 1985, sparked media coverage as the victim’s mother called for a barrier. It was installed after another death in 1987.

No one has jumped over the barrier, according to a campus spokesman.

In at least two of the UCSD suicides, parents of the victims spoke up and talked to reporters. Not so for the relatives and friends of Coronado Bridge suicide victims.

In recent years, at least, they appear to have suffered in silence without seeking public attention.

That fact may be one reason why bridge suicides are little noticed by those who aren’t directly affected. In many cases, communities only take action regarding suicide when “you have a surviving family member who is willing to advocate and go public in their grief to do something about it,” said Berman, the association executive director.

Leavens put it this way in a 1985 newspaper interview: “I don’t think there really is going to be … pressure until a public figure or a person related to the county Board of Supervisors goes off the (Coronado) bridge.”

♦♦♦

Any proposal to install a bridge on the Coronado Bridge would face criticism on grounds of effectiveness, cost and appearance.

Caltrans did consider a barrier in the 1980s at the behest of Leavens and others, although spokesman Edward Cartagena said no one still working at the agency recalls the details of the discussions.

Several years ago, Caltrans briefly discussed installing a net to catch jumpers, Cartagena recalled. But, he said, the idea went nowhere.

A barrier wouldn’t be physically impossible to build on the Coronado Bridge, said Henry Petroski, a bridge specialist and professor of civil engineering at Duke University.

“Technically, I don’t think there would be any severe technical barriers to doing so,” he said. “But you’d have to pay for it, and you’d have to accept that the bridge’s appearance could be changed.”

It’s true that a barrier could disrupt the stunning view that motorists can see if they’re brave enough to look over the bridge’s three-foot-tall rails. A fence could also make the bridge look less beautiful from afar.

Bill Adams, then a Coronado councilman, declared in 1986 that a barrier would “make the bridge look hideous and cause more traffic problems,” according to a newspaper story.

“Instead of making a quick jump, it will be a floor show,” he added, apparently meaning that jumpers would try to scale a barrier creating even more of a spectacle. 

Then there’s the matter of money. The cost of a Coronado Bridge barrier is unclear, although an official estimated the cost at $7 million in 1985.

A barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge — which is 6,450 feet long compared to the Coronado Bridge’s 11,179 feet, or two miles — is estimated to cost as much as $25 million.

In Canada, the barrier at the Toronto bridge cost $3.7 million. But that bridge is just a third of a mile long.

♦♦♦

There’s a cheaper and simpler suicide prevention strategy: Emergency phones with direct access to counselors.

Officials at the Sunshine Skyway Bridge near Tampa, Fla., a leading suicide magnet, installed hotline phones on the bridge in the late 1990s. In New York City, officials last year installed emergency phones on four bridges that cross the Hudson River. And in 2006, hotline phones appeared on Seattle’s Aurora Bridge.

There’s a difference, however. Some of the other bridges have shoulders where people can stand and make calls safely. The Coronado Bridge does not, making midspan emergency phones a potentially dangerous proposition: Someone talking on a phone could be hit by cars.

Now, a handful of small signs on the Coronado Bridge give passersby the toll-free phone number of a crisis line. But the only emergency phone for the public is at an operations building near the former toll booths on the Coronado side of the bridge.

The phone, which has a direct connection to suicide counselors, sits in an antique-looking black call box next to a small sign. It is easy for motorists zipping by on the roadway to miss.

According to Caltrans spokesman Cartagena, Caltrans removed emergency phones from the bridge itself in 1993. At that time, officials eliminated the bridge’s break-down lanes in order to install a system that allows a fifth lane of traffic to go east or west depending on the level of congestion.

Regular patrols are another option to reduce suicides from bridges. California Highway Patrol officers are based at the Coronado Bridge’s former toll plaza 24 hours a day, monitoring video feeds from eight or nine bridge cameras, said spokesman Brad Baehr. Since their job is to keep an eye on the video feeds, other officers typically respond to problems on the bridge, he said. 

CHP officers are assigned to patrol the bridge and nearby portions of Interstate 5 for at least part of each day, he said. 

Officials at Florida’s four-mile-long Sunshine Skyway Bridge turned to patrols in 1998 and began paying officers to patrol the bridge 24 hours a day.

Statistics show that the suicide rate remains fairly steady at the bridge despite the patrols. Still, Debra Harris, director of a Tampa suicide hotline, said the patrols allow officers to quickly arrive on the scene when someone appears to be suicidal. In the past, a response could take more than an hour.

“If 24-hour law enforcement patrols don’t stop people (from killing themselves), I’m not sure what would,” she said.

♦♦♦

For now, the suicides at the Coronado continue. Then there are those uncounted depressed people who head to the bridge with death on their minds but don’t jump.

Cops or passersby convince them to stay away from the edge. Or they decide to keep driving instead of stopping. Or they turn around and walk in the other direction when they reach the end of the sidewalk at the bridge’s Coronado entrance.

Somehow, they find a barrier of their own — at least for a moment.

Randy Dotinga is a San Diego-based freelance writer. He welcomes your feedback and stories. E-mail him at rdotinga@aol.com to contact him directly with your thoughts or ideas. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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