Saturday, July 26, 2008

Bridge's Suicide Barriers Spark Debate


For many, San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge is a defining and iconic structure adored by Bay Area residents and tourists alike.

golden gate bridge
San Francisco residents are debating again whether to add taller barriers to the Golden Gate Bridge to ward off suicidal jumpers.

But for those who suffer from severe depression and contemplate taking their own lives, the 220-foot-tall suspension bridge has become one of the most popular places in the world to commit suicide.

It is for that reason that officials are once again debating whether to install taller barriers around the perimeter of the bridge to ward off potential jumpers, many of whom have long found it easy to clear the 4-foot-tall railings that are currently in place.

The Marin County coroner's office estimates there have been more than 1,300 recorded suicides since the bridge was constructed in 1937, and at least seven so far this year, making the bridge one of the most frequented U.S. destinations for those who want to end it all.

But as community members begin to mull several design options commissioned by the Golden Gate Bridge Physical Suicide Deterrent System Project, aimed at adapting the bridge to make it less convenient for jumpers, public opinion is divided.

While jump survivors and families of those who have killed themselves from the bridge, support the project, others are wary of changing the appearance of a landmark that is so signature to the area.

Save the Jumpers or Save the Bridge?

For Kevin Hines, a 26-year-old San Francisco resident who survived his own suicide attempt off the bridge at age 19, installing higher barriers has become his life's mission.

"I lived for a reason, and it is to speak out and help solve the [bridge's suicide problem']," said Hines.

Hines, who said he suffered from bi-polar disorder, severe depression and hallucinations when he jumped, knew almost immediately after beginning his free fall into the bay that he regretted his decision.

"You jump and you realize you're going to die and you get shocked into reality -- you start to think about your family and your friends," said Hines, who said that, before he jumped, he had wanted to die because he thought he was a burden to his loved ones.

It is because of his experience that Hines has become a regular at forums held by Golden Gate Bridge officials to poll public opinion on the design options for suicide barriers.

Under California state law, extensive review of the proposed construction by engineers -- who must make sure that any change will not jeopardize the bridge's integrity -- as well as a mandatory 30-day period for public discussion, is required. It is only after these steps are completed that the proposal can be put to a vote by the district's board of directors. No decision is expected until October.

"It's very obvious the bridge is a magnet for people who are suicidal and depressed," said Hines, who is a member of The Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization determined to raise the bridge's railings.

"Why did I choose the Golden Gate Bridge?" said Hines. "Because it's simple."

A 2008 study conducted by National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Director John Draper found barriers to be "the most effective means of bridge suicide prevention."

But despite testimony from survivors like Hines and family members of deceased jumpers, the majority of people who have responded to a poll on the bridge Web site do not support the proposed barriers.

"Seventy-five percent of the 938 respondents prefer a no-built alternative," Mary Currie, a spokesperson for the Golden Gate Bridge, told

Those who voted had a choice between five build and one non-build alternative, which range in cost from $40 million to $50 million. Of those who did support some sort of construction, the alternative that proposes building a horizontal net to catch jumpers off the side of the bridge was the most popular.

Among the stark barrier opponents is Mac Coffey, a retired clinical psychologist who doubts any taller railings will save any lives.

In fact, Coffey argues that improving the barrier will deter those who come there to get noticed and get help, and may even lead to an increased number of suicides.

"If you put up a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, nobody would come to the bridge to commit suicide," said Coffey. "But then they would go unidentified, and their friends and relatives would never know they were suicidal."

Coffey references studies that show over the past 30 years, approximately 20 people jumped and died and another 50 were rescued by passersby, security cameras or suicide-prevention hotline phones already present on the bridge.

"I'm convinced that a percentage of them would kill themselves in another way at another time because they were never identified," said Coffey.

"There is this benefit that nobody wants to talk about," added Coffey. "I would predict that there is no other site in the U.S. that saves as many people from suicide, because I don't think there's any place where people get identified as suicidal as they do on this bridge."

Coffey added that, like many other opponents of the barrier construction, he thinks a change to the bridge's design would likely be "aesthetically unappealing."

One commenter on Wednesday's San Francisco Chronicle story on the barriers, identified only by his screen name "davenportdude," wrote, "They should never deface the most beautiful bridge in the world because some people are suicidal. It's a shame, a waste, and it's too bad, but they should never dictate how to run that bridge."

Another anonymous poster wrote: "Don't do it, suicide is a terrible tragedy, but ruining the beautiful Golden Gate Bridge is not the solution."

But jump survivor Hines has strong words for barrier critics.

"How callous have we become in San Francisco that we turn our backs and turn away?" said Hines.

"I think it's sad that we care more about the beauty of an inanimate object than we do about human life and life that deserves worth living."

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