Questions and Answers
Although I have lived in the San Francisco Bay Area my entire life, and devoted much of my career to suicide prevention, there were things I didn't know about Golden Gate Bridge suicides until I started writing this book.
What is the magnitude of the problem?
To date there have been more than 1,800 confirmed suicides from the Golden Gate Bridge, making it far and away the top suicide site in the world. Many other suicides haven’t been confirmed because a body wasn’t found. From 2011 to 2015 there were 186 confirmed deaths, an average of 37 per year. In addition, 619 people (124 per year) were stopped from jumping by Bridge Patrol and California Highway Patrol officers. In 2016 there were 39 suicides and 144 thwarted attempts. In 2017 the number of suicides decreased slightly, to 33, but the number of attempts increased dramatically, to 245. In 2018 there were 27 confirmed suicides, four that were unconfirmed, and 187 interventions. The numbers for 2019 were 28 suicides, two unconfirmed, and 166 interventions. Nearly every other day now, on average, someone goes to the Golden Gate Bridge and either jumps or tries to.
Why has the bridge been a popular suicide site?
Part of the reason is because of the bridge’s magnetic appeal. Suicide sites tend to draw suicidal people to them, and the Golden Gate Bridge exerts a stronger pull than anywhere else. A second reason is because of the perception that jumping from the bridge results in a quick, near-certain death. This isn't always true; 5 percent of jumpers survive the fall and end up drowning, their last seconds filled with pain and terror. The main reason, though, is because access is easy. Pedestrian and bike paths on the bridge are open year-round, and the railing is only four feet high—low enough for almost anyone to climb over it.
Why hasn't the bridge had a barrier?
Original plans called for a taller railing specifically to prevent against suicides. In a last-minute design decision, however, the railing was lowered to enhance the view. The first suicide occurred shortly after the bridge opened in 1937, and over the next 70 years, as the number of suicides increased dramatically, there were periodic proposals to erect a physical deterrent. All were rejected by the Golden Gate Bridge District, which is largely autonomous. Public pressure began mounting in 2005, and led to a vote in 2008 in which the Bridge District board approved adding a marine-grade stainless steel net underneath. At the same time that they approved it, however, board members voted against using any bridge monies to pay for it. In 2014, the current board reversed its position and approved using reserves to match funding that had been committed by three sources (the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrans, and California’s Mental Health Services Act). With full funding in place, construction of the specially-designed net—more than 360,000 square feet—is now underway, to be installed no later than January 2021. In the meantime, additional Bridge Patrol officers have been hired to prevent new jumps.
Why was the net chosen over a taller railing?
One reason the net was chosen was because it won’t affect views from the bridge and was the preferred option among five that were presented to the public and voted on in an online poll. A second reason was because the cost to maintain the net is cheaper than that of maintaining a taller railing. The net doesn’t need to be painted periodically, and from a distance, especially on foggy days, it will be unnoticeable. The design is modeled, in part, after nets on a bridge in New York and castle in Switzerland.
Will the net make a difference?
Yes, without a doubt. Studies from around the world have proven that restricting access to lethal means is one of the two most effective ways to prevent suicides (the other way is to provide more training to physicians in identifying suicidal behavior and intervening effectively). At every site that once was a magnet for suicides, the problem has ended after a taller railing or net was erected. On bridges, suicidal people ignore signage and phones because they are too wrapped up in their own problems to notice. This is why a physical barrier is the only solution that truly truly works.
What happens if someone jumps into the net?
The way the net is constructed, it will be hard for a person to get out. Teams of specially-trained firefighters, whose station is only a few minutes from the bridge, will rescue anyone who lands in the net.
If people want to kill themselves, why should others care?
It’s natural to care when people die unnecessarily, and suicide is the most preventable form of death. Moreover, it's not just loved ones who are affected by someone's suicide—it’s all of us. All of us miss out when current or future doctors, engineers, artists, inventors, caregivers, and others end their lives. The most common occupation of Golden Gate Bridge jumpers is student. The second most common is teacher.
What are the arguments against a bridge barrier?
There are three main ones—cost, aesthetics, and effectiveness. Some people oppose a barrier because of the cost, yet in the case of the Golden Gate Bridge, millions of dollars have been on other public safety improvements that affect far fewer individuals. For instance, in the last decade a $5 million barrier was installed to protect bicyclists from motor vehicle traffic even though no bicyclist had ever been killed on the bridge. More recently, nearly $30 million was spent for a median separating oncoming vehicle traffic even though fewer than 40 people had died in traffic accidents on the bridge.
Some people oppose a barrier because they think it will mar the bridge's beauty, yet other once-famous suicide sites such as the Eiffel Tower, Empire State Building, St. Peter's Basilica, Duomo in Florence, and Sydney Harbour Bridge have had barriers erected on them with little or no visual impact. After a suicide barrier was installed on a bridge in Toronto, it received the Canadian national engineering award for design elegance and is referred to today as "lifesaving art." Moreover, there has been a barrier at one end of the Golden Gate Bridge for 30 years and no one has objected. It's chain link, eight-feet high and 350 feet long. There is nothing pretty about it, but it's not there for aesthetic reasons; it's there to protect people below, at Fort Point, from being struck by debris tossed over the side.
Some people believe that a barrier won’t make a difference because suicidal people are so intent on ending their lives that if the bridge had a barrier, they would kill themselves another way. Numerous studies show that this is false, however. Many suicidal people fixate on one means of death, and if that means isn’t available to them, they don’t choose another means—instead they choose to live. In one study, researchers tracked what happened to 515 people who were stopped from jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty-five years later, 94 percent of them were still alive or had died by means other than suicide. According to the Harvard School of Public Health, 90 percent of people who survive a suicide attempt don’t go on to kill themselves. Among the small number of people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge, nearly every one said afterward that they wanted to live as soon as they went over the side. Also, they didn’t have a Plan B; it was the Golden Gate Bridge or nothing.
What can people do if they want to take action?
Bridge Rail Foundation is an all-volunteer, nonprofit organization whose advocacy for a suicide deterrent on the Golden Gate Bridge played a key role in mobilizing community support. BRF members will gladly provide information to other communities that are interested in making a local suicide site safe for all. After The Final Leap came out, I was recruited to the Bridge Rail Foundation board, and I continue to serve proudly.