by Harvey Widroe, M.D.
American Reporter Correspondent
November 27, 2007
STOPPING CERTAIN DEATH
ORINDA, Calif. -- A recent decision to build a suicide prevention barrier on the Cold Spring Bridge near Santa Barbara, Calif., has stirred opposition from a small but vocal group calling themselves "Friends of the Bridge."
What is sad is that their arguments are the same as those that have actually prevented the erection of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge for more than 50 years. In that time, more than 1,200 persons have used that bridge to take their own lives.
The opponents to the suicide barrier in each case worry that the view from the bridge will be obstructed by the construction of a "cage." What a bizarre ranking of values! Since when does preserving a view one is likely to see only on occasion compare with saving human lives? Even for those for whom the view from the bridge is all that is important, redesigning bridge barriers into closed tubes is not necessary.
Numerous engineering studies have presented a number of effective yet aesthetically appealing suicide prevention designs to alter the rails of the bridge. The original Golden Gate bridge design envisioned rails that were five and a half feet high with the explicit intent to discourage most would-be suicide jumpers. The final version was scaled down to the current four foot barrier, a height which does little to discourage anyone from leaping to almost certain death.
Still with the intent of protecting the view, one year, instead of erecting suicide barriers, the Golden Gate Bridge Authority employed a suicide prevention "guard." An officer in a golf cart like vehicle drove back and forth over the bridge all day long to prevent would be suicide jumpers. Most of the time he would arrive in time to hear the last words of the jumper, such as "Tell my family, 'Good bye!' Or as the officer arrived on the scene, he might touch the hand of the victim or see a hand waving from someone in the process of falling.
Were lives saved? No one can count the number who avoided the bridge because of the guard in the golf cart. Yet grisly statistics attest that the number of successful jumpers was not reduced.
Those opposed to the barriers also argue that people who are intent on suicide will find some other to kill themselves anyway. So why bother to stop them at the railings of the bridge?
The fact is that being suicidal is not a stable condition. It is often impulsive. Suicidal urges and plans may vary from hour to hour or day to day. And when the suicidal urge fades, the depressed person, at least for a time is shaky but safe. We hope that effective treatment can then intervene.
Five years ago I saw a severely depressed patient who had been driving over the Oakland San Francisco Bay Bridge on her way to the Golden Gate Bridge to end her life. But she became stuck in heavy traffic, and after awhile, she became so angry at the cars around her that changed her mind and drove home. She is happy and healthy today.
Even those few who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge have reported misgivings as they plummeted downward. I personally interviewed a survivor a week after her unsuccessful suicide jump. She was still very upset but grateful she had lived to tell the tale.
Different ways of attempting suicide have different success rates. Jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge has a 98% success rate. Leaping off the Cold Spring Bridge has a 100% success rate. A gunshot to the head is almost certain death. Hanging has a 90% success rate. Driving one's car into a concrete abutment has about a 50% chance of death.
Depending on how the term 'overdose' is defined, a suicide attempt by overdose has less than a 25% success rate. And cutting one's wrist has even a lower success rate still, less than five percent. In other words, if we can prevent the suicidal patient from jumping off a bridge, and he or she opts to take an overdose instead, we have an excellent chance of saving that patient's life.
And the vast majority of the time we will help them not only to survive, but to go on to feel a lot better. People who are depressed and suicidal can be treated effectively. And a few weeks or a month later the whole idea of suicide seems incredibly alien, even revolting, to them.
I recently had a radio program debate with one of the Friends of the Bridge group. He acknowledged that a suicide barrier would reduce the suicide rate at the bridge. "It's all a matter of statistics," my opponent claimed.
"Nonsense", I responded. "This is a matter of saving human life!"
Let's cheer the decision to build a suicide barrier on the Cold Spring Bridge, and let us hope that after many decades of inaction that the Golden Gate Bridge Authority finally will follow suit.
Harvey Widroe, a longtime practicing psychiatrist, is the author of the recently published, "The Smart Dieter's Cheating Guide: Eat and Watch Pounds Melt Away," with Ron Kenner (Outskirts Press)