THE BLOG
03/31/2014 05:36 pm ET | Updated May 31, 2014

Preventing the Tragedy of Suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge

A presenter at a scientific conference I attended put up a slide showing that the British suicide rate dropped by a remarkable one third from the early 1960s to the early 1970s. The presenter then asked members of the audience to guess the reason for the welcome change. Audience members rattled off many seemingly plausible explanations including a rise in income, improvements in the national health service and increasing rights for women and minorities, but the answer was far simpler: The transfer of British ovens from coal to natural gas. In the early 1960s, almost every British home contained a means to impulsively commit suicide and by the early 1970s almost none did. Although the rate of other forms of suicide went up slightly over the same period, this increase was swamped by the virtual disappearance of people killing themselves by inhaling carbon monoxide from their oven.

Any of the British people who previously would have committed suicide using their stove could have taken a tram to the River Thames and thrown themselves in, or stepped in front of a street car, or leapt off London's Tower Bridge, but very few of them did. This disproved a common theory of suicide: namely that all are premeditated acts by planful people who will ultimately find some way to take their own lives. In reality, a large proportion of suicides are impulsive and can therefore be prevented if ready means are removed. And that's why many lives would be saved by installing nets to catch jumpers at the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bridge is a stunning, iconic landmark whose very sight has brought joy to millions. But it has also sadly become perhaps the common place in the world for people to commit suicide. A total of 46 people are known to have leapt to their deaths in 2013; others may have been swept out to sea and therefore not be counted in that grim total. These deaths traumatize family members as well as those who witness the jumps or discover the shattered corpses that wash up on the shore.

For years the governmental bodies that oversee the bridge have been resistant to paying for anti-suicide measures. Like the audience at the scientific conference I attended, they have tended to believe that all suicides are carefully planned acts and thus, if it becomes impossible to leap to one's death from the Golden Gate Bridge, distraught individuals will simply take their lives elsewhere. Careful scientific research has disproved this theory. Professor Richard Seiden painstakingly tracked down death records for the 515 individuals who had been prevented by police from jumping off the bridge from 1937 to 1971. Remarkably, only 6 percent had committed suicide. Even if every individual who died in what was believed to be an accident were assumed to have intentionally caused their own deaths, the proportion of suicides rose only to 10 percent. In other words, 90 percent or more of people stopped from committing suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge lived out the full natural extent of their lives.

With other "suicide hotspots" -- including the Ellington Bridge in Washington D.C., and Muenster Terrace in Bern, Switzerland -- the installation of suicide barriers eliminated suicides at the hot spot with little or no evidence of displacement to other locales. The idea that more than a few suicidal people will take their lives by other means if the Golden Gate Bridge installs anti-suicide nets therefore has no basis in reality.

Thanks to pressure from advocates at the Bridge Rail Foundation and leadership in Congress by Senator Barbara Boxer and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, the funding and political will to install suicide prevention nets at the Bridge appears closer than ever. But until it happens, it will be important for everyone who cares about preventing suicide to communicate their support to the board of the The Golden Gate Highway and Transportation District. To allow this ongoing tragedy to continue when we have the means to prevent it would be nothing less than shameful.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-273-8255 for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.