06/13/2014 06:27 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Addressing the Elephant on the Bridge

Click here to watch the TEDTalk that inspired this post.

When I was asked by TED and HuffPost for a personal response to Sgt. Briggs' incredibly powerful talk about his 23 years of service as a patrolman on the Golden Gate Bridge, I was touched but unsure I could write it. As anyone with personal experience with suicidal depression, whether their own or a loved one's, would tell you, it is impossible to watch these 14 minutes without experiencing a wide range of contradictory and overwhelming emotions, from painful to inspiring, of an intensity that--for me personally, anyway--can't be summed up in a few paragraphs for a blog post.

The concepts Sgt. Briggs raises: the collateral damage; the lifesaving power of connection to other people; the unbelievable difficulty of making such connections through the soul-isolation of a person who is, as Sgt. Briggs put it, "at their darkest time"--as well as the unrewarded, quiet heroism of the working-class caregivers in law-enforcement, emergency services, hospital staff, and other professions who continually exhibit the strength and courage to somehow do just that--are all subjects of such profound emotional complexity for me that I found no way of respectfully and honestly doing justice to them here.

But along with all these multilayered personal responses, there was another, much less complicated reaction invoked as I listened to Sgt. Briggs' story, so I'll talk about that one instead. One that is direct, basic, and easy to say. The simple, pragmatic thought that, for me, as I listened, was the Elephant In The Room of this whole TED talk. To be blunt:

Why the fuck isn't there a net under the Golden Gate Bridge?

As it happens, in England, in the 60s and 70s, there was a surprising, unexpected, and entirely unplanned-for accident of history that is powerfully instructive to this question. As that country, starting in 1958, gradually converted from coal gas to natural gas, which contains less carbon monoxide, the suicide rate started to drop dramatically. The simple fact was that, prior to this technological shift, every home in England was essentially equipped with a convenient and efficient suicide-machine, neatly installed in every kitchen: the oven. When those ovens became less deadly, this access to readily available lethal means was drastically reduced. And more and more people "at their darkest time" made it out of that time to see the other side of it.

This type of thinking about suicide prevention is "epidemiological"--looking at the matter not just from the perspective of the individual and his or her psychiatric problems, but in terms of populations and megatrends, addressing them the way that scientists study epidemics of disease. The fact that suicide is "contagious" and occurs in trends and epidemics is well documented--indeed Sgt. Briggs addresses this fact directly more than once, describing the bridge frankly and unsentimentally as a "suicide magnet"--and if anyone would know, it'd be him.

In epidemiological terms, if we use the public health issue of malaria as a metaphor for the public health issue of suicide, with mosquitoes being a disease vector for malaria, then the Golden Gate Bridge is the second-biggest mosquito in the entire world. Suicide rates there--despite the years of almost superhuman empathy shown to complete strangers by Sgt. Briggs and his fellow officers in heroic dedication to their job of saving lives--are now higher than ever before, at almost one every other day.

And--if you start reading about it, as I did after listening to this talk--as it turns out, lots of people have been trying to do something about it for a long, long time. The reason they have not succeeded seems to be not lack of public concern so much as general ignorance about a taboo and frightening topic (my God, how sad it was to hear Sgt. Briggs explain that when he first began his career there, neither he nor any other cop on his beat had received any mental health intervention training, at ALL), as well as the same political and bureaucratic impasses that have frustrated seemingly every area of human endeavor, since, well, forever.

For example, it was suggested that such a barrier might put too much structural strain on the bridge. Other engineers, however, disagreed. It was argued that it would only encourage more people to become suicidal, by "putting the idea into their heads," as if not openly acknowledging the Elephant In The Room would magically make it go away. That idea too has been disproven, in study after study. And it was also (of course) suggested that it would be cost prohibitive.

In a society that can come up with 200 million dollars for a remake of "Total Recall"--only one of dozens of would-be blockbusters that nobody even particularly liked--that last argument seems not only stupid, but frankly, cruel.

The good news is that, in 2008, after years of debate and following a huge public awareness movement on the part of concerned citizens and experts, it was finally officially decided by the bridge's Board of Directors (in a 14 to 1 vote) to design and install a fall barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge.

The bad news is that it is now 2014, and it's still not there.

It is certainly true that a suicide barrier would not solve everything. Ulysses made it past the island of the Sirens because he was tied to the mast, physically restrained from steering his ship into the rocks, when the madness of their song overtook him--yet afterwards, his problems were far from over. Depression is a long-term affliction, and addressing it involves real connections with real people. It is only years of difficult personal growth and change that save clinical depressives in the long run, and I would not be here today without the sustained (and deeply humbling) aid of friends, colleagues, family, and dedicated professionals like Sgt. Briggs. But from a shorter-term perspective, it is equally true that I would also not be here today if the secure ward on the 9th floor of Long Island College Hospital in downtown Brooklyn did not have unbreakable plastic sheeting bolted over the windows.

A final thought: perhaps the saddest argument I read against the proposed net is that it would ruin the aesthetic beauty of one of the world's most impressive architectural and engineering achievements. But let's be real: architects are artists with big ideas (the people at TED know this; the D, after all, stands for Design). It is clearly within the capacities of any number of innovative minds out there to create a net for this structure that would be not only functional, but a world-class work of art, for the city of San Francisco, and the nation, to be proud of.

In fact, it just might be the prettiest goddamn sight you ever saw.

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

Todd Hanson is a comedy writer and performer who has been a part of The Onion, America's Finest News Source, since 1990. He lives in Brooklyn.

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