The San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge is an American icon. It’s also a preferred destination for troubled individuals seeking to end their lives, known as a “suicide hotspot.” Since its construction in 1937, more than 1,600 people have jumped to their deaths, prompting city officials to approve the construction of a suicide barrier in the form of a vast steel net. Advocates of the barrier say it will be well worth its $76 million price tag: Not only will it catch jumpers, but it will also dissuade potential ones from attempting to jump in the first place, they argue. But will it?
Yes, says a new study in the journal The Lancet Psychiatry. Researchers found that installing suicide barriers like the one San Francisco is planning can reduce the number of deaths by more than 90 percent at high-risk locations. They looked at a range of studies on the relative effectiveness of different forms of suicide intervention, including restricting access (i.e. installing safety barriers and nets), encouraging help-seeking (i.e. providing crisis hotlines and signs), and increasing the likelihood of third party intervention (i.e. training bridge staff to monitor for suicide attempts). Out of all three, suicide barriers were the most effective.
By comparing the number of completed suicides at specific hotspots where interventions had been implemented—including Gap Park in Australia, Clifton Suspension Bridge in England, and Sunshine Skyway Bridge in Florida—researchers found that deaths dropped from an average of 5.8 suicides each year before interventions were introduced to an average of 2.4 deaths per year afterwards. Not only did the rate of completed suicides decrease at the hotspots being studied, but in most cases there was no increase of suicide by jumping at nearby hotspots. In some cases, the suicide rate even went down to zero.
The researchers say they found “unequivocal evidence” that restricting access to suicide hotspots worked. Yet evidence for the other two methods was “very promising” as well. As a result, they say the best strategy is to use all three in conjunction—the logic being that restricting access can delay a suicide attempt, offering time for a third party to intervene. That’s already the approach at Gap Park, where a curved fence surrounds the cliff’s edge and emergency telephones ensure access to a crisis hotline. And it will be at the Golden Gate Bridge—which already has help-seeking interventions available, including crisis hotline phones and signs that read, “There is hope. Make the call.”—when the net is completed in 2019.
Opponents of the Golden Gate Bridge plan say the net will be an eyesore, and likely won’t stop people from finding other ways of dying by suicide. Yet other efforts have shown heartening results, including a similar net placed around the Munster Terrace cathedral in Bern, Switzerland, where two or three people had been jumping to their deaths per year prior to 1998. (After a safety net was built, no suicides occurred from 1998 to 2005.) Anecdotally, survivors of attempted suicide have also stated that such a net would have deterred them from jumping. “It would’ve stopped me right then and there,” said Kevin Berthia, a supporter of the Golden Gate safety net who almost jumped in 2005 but was rescued by a bridge worker, in an interview with ABC 7 News.
While it’s true that such efforts are expensive and most people attempting to commit suicide don’t jump from bridges, there are good reasons to better understand the psychology of these hotspots, says study author Jane Pirkis. “Suicide attempts at these sites are often fatal and attract high profile media attention which can lead to copycat acts,” Pirkis, a professor at the Centre for Mental Health at the Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, said in a press release. “These methods of suicide also have a distressing impact on the mental wellbeing of witnesses and people who live or work near these locations.”