I’m a sucker for the Bay Bridge. It’s not as famous as its counterpart, the Golden Gate Bridge, but the Bay bridge is grand in every sense. Its longer (four main towers instead of two) than the Golden Gate, and it connects two major American cities, Oakland and San Francisco. For this reason it gets far more use than the Golden Gate, which connects San Francisco with sparsely populated Marin county.
But still, there’s no denying that the Golden Gate bridge is one of the most iconic locales in America. Which is why it makes it all the more fascinating to me that it is the world’s leading suicide location. Here is a wonderful New Yorker piece detailing the history of suicide on the bridge, where over 1200 people have jumped to their deaths since it opened in 1937.
Why the Golden Gate? After all, nowhere near as many people have jumped from the Bay Bridge. The grandeur of the bridge has something to do with it. Having lived here for years, I can attest to that. Most jumpers go off the east side of the bridge, where after surmounting a 4-foot barrier they have a view of the Bay, Angel Island, Alcatraz, the hills and skyline of San Francisco, and the distant hills of East Bay beyond. Not a bad way to go, right? It’s way more effective than pills or cutting (only 26 people are known to have survived the jump). All you have to do is stand upon the void of one of the most beautiful places on earth, and then you’re gone, right? Well, not quite.
“Many people don’t look down first, and so those who jump from the north end of the bridge hit the land instead of the water they saw farther out. Jumpers who hit the water do so at about seventy-five miles an hour and with a force of fifteen thousand pounds per square inch. Eighty-five per cent of them suffer broken ribs, which rip inward and tear through the spleen, the lungs, and the heart. Vertebrae snap, and the liver often ruptures. “It’s as if someone took an eggbeater to the organs of the body and ground everything up,” Ron Wilton, a Coast Guard officer, once observed. Those who survive the impact usually die soon afterward. If they go straight in, they plunge so deeply into the water—which reaches a depth of three hundred and fifty feet—that they drown. (The rare survivors always hit feet first, and at a slight angle.)”
It’s very easy to jump off the bridge. The barrier is barely a barrier at all. Prevention methods currently include postings and telephones for suicide hotlines, plus random patrols of Highway Patrol workers and ironworkers who coax down many jumpers. These non-physical barriers stop between 50-80 jumpers per year, which is great, but about 30 people still jump per year.
The key is that there is no barrier that would prevent death. “The Empire State Building, the Duomo, St. Peter’s Basilica, and Sydney Harbor Bridge were all suicide magnets before barriers were erected on them… At all of these places, after the barriers were in place the number of jumpers declined to a handful, or to zero.” But San Franciscans have persistently opposed efforts to build a similar barrier. Let’s take a look at the commonly cited reasons.
(1) “It’s costly.” It would cost money, sure. But the priorities here are screwed up. They installed a barrier between cyclists and traffic designed for cyclists’ safety. However, the barrier cost $5 million and no cyclists had been reported dead due to traffic collisions. A barrier likely wouldn’t cost much more than this.
(2) “It would be ugly.” The bridge is certainly beautiful, and marring its appearance would be something to avoid. But I find it impossible to believe that there couldn’t be a barrier that would be both effective and aesthetically pleasing.
(3) “Those people would just jump, anyway.” This one is the worst. Simply the worst. First, it displays callous disregard at best for the lives shattered from suicides. It’s also wrong. One study quoted in the article, “…followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. “The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later.”
Our society continues to have negative or even hostile attitudes towards those suffering from depression, and that’s true even in the liberal oasis of the Bay Area.
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