Barriers may prevent suicides but block views
The man pulled over, got out of his vehicle and climbed over the chest-high brown railing. Then, with a lighted cigarette in his hand, he jumped.
Jeffrey Coleman watched from his yard as the man, flailing his arms and kicking his legs, fell 120 feet to his death.
It wasn’t the first time that someone committed suicide in Coleman’s inner-city neighborhood, nestled in a green valley near Akron’s All-America bridge, also known as the Y bridge for the way it divides in two at one end.
Coleman thinks a barrier to deter jumpers is long overdue at the bridge where 26 people have committed suicide over the last 10 years, including seven in 2006.
In Akron, like other cities where easy-to-climb bridges attract those seeking to end their lives, the effort to construct barriers gets sidetracked by high costs and debates over whether they only cause depressed individuals to choose another way to die.
However, most mental health experts say barriers deter suicides, and one study suggests an individual contemplating suicide would not seek another site to jump.
Barrier studies are underway at San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, where more than 1,200 suicides have occurred since 1937, and in Seattle where 50 people have killed themselves since 1995 by jumping from the Aurora Bridge.
Like Akron’s Y bridge, the Aurora Bridge spans a populated area, this one composed of technology companies that have moved in during the last 20 years along with trendy shops and restaurants. The suicides have traumatized workers.
“If you’re on the promenade at lunch, you might see someone jumping off,” said Gregg Hirakawa, spokesman for the Seattle Department of Transportation.
Although there’s strong support for a barrier, finding $5 million for the project is a problem, Hirakawa said. No opposition has arisen, he said, but he knows that a proposal to change the aesthetics of the 80-year-old structure probably would draw some protests.
The bridge has six phones with buttons for 911 or a crisis center, and signs with a suicide hotline number. The bridge’s neighbors want more done.
“The real change is made when you put up barriers,” said psychiatrist Paula Clayton, medical director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. “It’s the only proven intervention. I don’t think it’s used as much because it’s costly.”
A study of the Memorial Bridge in Augusta, Maine, showed there were 14 suicides before a safety fence was installed in 1983. There were no suicides at the bridge after the fence was installed, and the number of suicidal jumps from other structures in the area remained unchanged.
The study’s author, Andrew Pelletier, an epidemiologist at the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, concluded that suicidal individuals did not seek alternative sites for jumping.
When a new deck was put on the Memorial Bridge, city councilors considered not putting the fence back up. Former City Councilor Donna Lerman said the removal of the fence opened up a vista of the city and its capital dome.
She opposed the fence, saying it ruined the view and only made people choose another method of taking their lives -- including jumping from two other bridges in the city.
“When people support putting a fence on a bridge, it’s a good feeling because they feel they’re doing something,” Lerman said. “It doesn’t get at the crux of the matter, and the fact more people are committing suicides out of despondence in the privacy of their own homes.”
The debate over the Golden Gate Bridge has gone on for decades, with opponents arguing a barrier would be ugly and too costly.
Most members of the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District’s board of directors have said they either support a barrier, or possibly would depending on cost and appearance.
Not J. Dietrich Stroeh, a civil engineer who represents Marin County on the board.
“I will say it out loud -- I don’t support the barrier that people envision, extending the 4-foot-high railing and going up to 12 feet,” Stroeh said. “It’s going to be aesthetically unpleasant and obtrusive. People are going to feel like they’re driving through a tunnel.”
He does support the construction of a netting system under the bridge that would catch people if they jump and wouldn’t block the view.
“If you took the $25 million or $30 million [for a barrier] and hired therapists, you’d probably be better off,” he said.
Barriers are effective for the majority of people who would take their lives on a bridge, said Richard McKeon, a clinical psychologist and advisor on suicide prevention for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. He said only a minority would find another means to kill themselves.
“Most people who die by suicide have some level of ambivalence -- they are not 100% certain that they want to die,” McKeon said. “There’s still a chance that if they don’t follow the plan they have, they may not follow through and find another.”
Akron Councilman Jim Shealey, whose ward includes the Y bridge, supports installation of a barrier. Mayor Don Plusquellic, while in favor of a barrier, opposes blocking the scenery with a chain-link fence, spokesman Mark Williamson said. The bridge provides panoramic views of the valley it spans.
Options such as an acrylic fence, which would preserve the view and the bridge’s appearance, would cost up to $6 million.
Two requests for federal funding have been denied, but the city is still pursuing federal money, Williamson said.
Coleman, 60, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood, said the area had improved in recent years and he didn’t want it scarred by another suicide.
“It traumatizes people,” he said. “You have to take the little kids in the house so they don’t see things like this.”