What a world

by Ted on October 8, 2003

The whole thing is worth reading, but I’m just going to quote two paragraphs from a fascinating New Yorker article about people who commit suicide off of the Golden Gate bridge.

A familiar argument against a barrier is that thwarted jumpers will simply go elsewhere. In 1953, a bridge supervisor named Mervin Lewis rejected an early proposal for a barrier by saying it was preferable that suicides jump into the Bay than dive off a building “and maybe kill somebody else.” (It’s a public-safety issue.) Although this belief makes intuitive sense, it is demonstrably untrue. Dr. Seiden’s study, “Where Are They Now?,” published in 1978, 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….

Kevin Briggs, a friendly, sandy-haired motorcycle patrolman, has a knack for spotting jumpers and talking them back from the edge; he has coaxed in more than two hundred potential jumpers without losing one over the side. He won the Highway Patrol’s Marin County Uniformed Employee of the Year Award last year. Briggs told me that he starts talking to a potential jumper by asking, “How are you feeling today?” Then, “What’s your plan for tomorrow?” If the person doesn’t have a plan, Briggs says, “Well, let’s make one. If it doesn’t work out, you can always come back here later.”



Martin 10.09.03 at 12:00 am

I dealt with this issue as a lawyer for the District of Columbia government during the late 1980s. (I can’t remember the time more specifically.) The city put anti-suicide fences on the Duke Ellington Bridge (which takes Calvert Street from Connecticut Avenue to the Adams Morgan neighborhood, if anyone is interested). The bridge a designated historic landmark and some citizents sued the city, arguing that the fences violated the city’s landmark preservation law since they violated the architectural integrity of the structure, which apparently had been designed by an important pre-World War II bridge designer. Opponents of the fences presented evidence by psychiatrists claiming that the fences were unlikely to be effective, primarily on the theory that there are two types of suicides, seriously committed ones who will find a way to kill themselves fences or no fences and ones who are essentially making a statement and generally will not succeed in killing themselves, fences or no fences. (Opponents of the fences also pointed out that there was another high bridge less than a block away.) My legal work did not call for me to look at the psychiatric literature beyond the record established for the case, so I don’t have an informed opinion on the underlying issue. (And, knowledge may have advanced since the time of the case.) I do remember looking at a study of, amazingly, individuals who had survived a jump off the Golden Gate Bridge. The court held that the fences could be kept, under the applicable legal standard, which merely required the city to “substantial evidence” to support its position, but not a “preponderance of the evidence.”


Invisible Adjunct 10.09.03 at 12:26 am

I read this last night.

What I found terrifying to contemplate: many of those who survived the jump (not that there are many, I believe the article cites 26 survivors) recount that they immediately regretted the action. Awful to think of the hundreds more who *didn’t* survive, who probably also regretted the action even as they were plunging to their deaths.


Tom T. 10.09.03 at 12:38 am

It seems to me the article goes a bit too far in the first quoted paragraph by saying “demonstrably untrue.” The group studied by Dr. Seiden are people who had a suicide attempt thwarted by the active intervention of other people. Putting a fence along the bridge would not necessarily amount to a similarly affirmative intervention, however. Many potential suicides would presumably just move on to consider another option without ever going out to the bridge and actually having an attempt thwarted, because they would already know that the Golden Gate is just not a workable option.

I’m not saying I’m pro-fence or anti-fence; I don’t know the expense or the aesthetics involved. I’m just saying that there may be more to the “they’ll go elsewhere” theory than the article suggests.


Randy Paul 10.09.03 at 1:31 am


This is the part that really haunted me:

Dr. Jerome Motto, who has been part of two failed suicidebarrier coalitions, is now retired and living in San Mateo. When I visited him there, we spent three hours talking about the bridge. Motto had a patient who committed suicide from the Golden Gate in 1963, but the jump that affected him most occurred in the seventies. “I went to this guy’s apartment afterward with the assistant medical examiner,” he told me. “The guy was in his thirties, lived alone, pretty bare apartment. He’d written a note and left it on his bureau. It said, ‘I’m going to walk to the bridge. If one person smiles at me on the way, I will not jump.'”

I thought about the poor man all day yesterday.


Keith M Ellis 10.09.03 at 4:13 am

Thanks for bringing this article to my attention again. I had already seen a link to it and put it aside to read later, but then didn’t. Now I have.

The most damning criticism in that article was the contrast between the willingness to spend large amounts of money on other so-called “matters of public safety”—even where there’s been no prior loss of life—and the unwillingness to do so in this case, where there has been much loss of life.

My sense is that the bigotry against suicides and the suicidal has eased in the last twenty years, but that this particular issue reveals some of what remains. (I should say, however, that likely part of the opposition to barriers arises out of a libertarian sentiment.)

Adjunct, I also had the thought you had…that the few survivors are almost certainly representative of the dead. A large portion likely regretted their decision shortly before their deaths.

And, Randy, I found that man’s note incredibly poignant, along with the teenage girl’s.

From personal experience, I have no doubt whatsoever that a large portion of suicides are ambivalent. Many who might go to the Golden Gate only to be thwarted by suicide-prevention mechanisms will take that as a _sign_ dissuading them from the act. Many more will have just that more time to reconsider—which most do. For most, the actual attempt at suicide is essentially an impulsive act. While some plan it out ahead of time, others pursue it doggedly, most find themselves following through only because of a particularly unhappy conjunction of events. In that context, a low barrier to exit (pun intended) as public policy is idiotic.


Doug 10.09.03 at 8:41 am

And the fence on the Ellington bridge is not unattractive. Metal rods about a quarter of an inch across, spaced about a hand’s width apart from each other, curving up and over your head at a height that I’d guess at about eight feet. You don’t notice it when you see the bridge from a distance, and it doesn’t much impede your views when you walk across it. The omnipresent Jersey barriers in downtown DC and the monument areas make the city look much worse than anything on the bridges.

I can also imagine that the fence on the Ellington bridge protects people involved in an accident from going over the edge. Don’t have any statistics or reports at hand, but there’s a lot of foot traffic on the bridge, and it’s not hard to think of a circumstance where a car wreck could push people over, if the fence weren’t there.

Say, Martin, did the DC suit lead to changes in the fence design? That might be the real effect of suits in SF – not to stop a fence (which seems a good idea), but to make sure that it fits aesthetically with the rest of the construction.


dsquared 10.09.03 at 11:03 am

I seem to remember that another piece of evidence for the theory that suicides are opportunistic was that the single biggest effect on the suicide rate in the UK was the switch from coal gas to natural gas, which made it much more difficult to kill yourself by putting your head in the oven.


spacewaitress 10.09.03 at 2:49 pm

I recently considered suicide. Had I gone, I would have leapt from a bridge here in Minneapolis; we have lots criscrossing the Mississippi River.

I don’t think a physical barrier is the best option. Anyone who is suicidal needs help. That’s why I think the “human barrier” in the form of patrols and phones is the best option. How would a physical barrier help a person get the help they need?

And for the really determined, a physical barrier wouldn’t thwart their attempts. The Bloor Viaduct in Toronto was North America’s second favorite suicide spot until the construction of a physical barrier/public art project known as the the “luminous veil.” Now would-be suicides just go a couple blocks down to another bridge. If a physical barrier were constructed on the Golden Gate bridge, it’s probable that would-be jumpers would simply transfer their attentions to the “tacky,” but no less effective, Bay Bridge.

Think of the man who wrote the note saying if one person smiled at him, he wouldn’t jump. Each of us has the capacity to reach out and help someone in our lives. The only thing that will save would-be suicides is human intervention; otherwise, they’ll just find some other bridge from which to jump.


Martin 10.09.03 at 5:15 pm

Doug: re design of fences on Ellington Bridge in D.C. I haven’t followed things in recent years, but I think that the current fence was in place before the court case. I recall that the relevant D.C. agency (presumably the Department of Public Works) put some effort into design and considered a number of alternatives before building the fence. Before the court case, there was some informal politicking about the fences and a formal administrative proceeding pursuant to the D.C. historic preservation law. (I believe the fences were put up, at least in part, as a result of activism by a relative of a suicide.) My recollection of the role of public input in the fence design process is vague, but presumably the likelihood of public attention encouraged the Department of Public Works to try to do a good job. (Some less prominant D.C. bridges have chain link fences, I believe intended to prevent vandals from throwing things at cars. According to the New Yorker article, the same is true of part of the Golden Gate Bridge.)

Incidentally, a suicide researcher at NIMH once asserted to me that barriers generally are not effective when I mentioned my involvment with the Ellington Bridge case to her. The circumstances (a school picnic)were not conducive to a detailed exploration of the subject, however. I don’t know if anyone has tried to do a methodologically sound evaluation of the effect of the Ellington barriers since they were put up.


del 10.09.03 at 8:13 pm

The article states that the bridge is the Worlds biggest suicide spot. I read recently that Beachy Head in England actually holds that dubious honour, having overtaken the Golden Gate bridge after they installed phones and patrols etc. (sorry, a trawl of Google failed to provide a link).


Tom 10.10.03 at 6:53 pm

I remember hearing once that >90% of the jumpers jump on the Bay side of the Bridge (towards San Francisco) rather than the Pacific side: that even in death, they go towards the side with light & human life, rather than the barren ocean.

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