Craig JacksonBy Craig Jackson, Professor of Occupational Health Psychology.

For almost three years I’ve been obsessed with the Golden Gate Bridge and it’s gruesome record of being the number one location in the world for suicides. Last week a teenager survived the fall – even though he only jumped from the bridge for a dare. Today I finally got to see it close up.

As a psychology lecturer, I cover a broad range of topics concerning how life, work and death have an impact upon human health and wellbeing. One of the topics I most frequently lecture on is suicide, and particularly that of suicide hot-spots around the world. Today I came to the biggest suicide hot-spot in the world – The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. I have never been here before, but like almost everyone else I know, I became aware of it as a kid watching 1970s cop shows and films. However, for the last three years I have had an almost obsessive need to learn more and more about this bridge, it’s history, it’s social significance for Americans, and the alluring pull it has on suicidal individuals. Since it’s completion in 1937, roughly 1300 people have leapt to their deaths from the bridge, although the true figure could be much higher as the shroud of advection fog that often covers the bridge has masked many more suicidal jumps. On average, one person jumps to their almost certain doom from this bridge every thirteen days. The drop of 220 feet produces in a four second free-fall, resulting in an impact with the icy waters below at 80-85 miles per hour.

Of those who have jumped and survived, of which there are a mere twenty-eight individuals, some thought the waters below would “cushion” their fall. Unfortunately at those speeds, the water has the same effect as hitting concrete, and death is usually instantaneous. Most of those twenty-eight survivors have admitted they regretted jumping as soon as they launched themselves from the railings. On 14th March this year, 17 year old Luhe Vilagomaz made the jump as a dare, while visiting the bridge on a school trip. He survived, after luckily creating as much wind resistance as he could while falling and hitting the water at high tide in a vertical position. Seven other people have made the jump this year and all have died. The railings across the entire span of the bridge are only 4 feet high, and allow anyone with a desire to die, or a sudden impulse to jump, the ability to go for it. Despite bridge patrols and security, the San Francisco Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the US Coastguard below, very little can be done to prevent bridge-jumpers at present.

My approach to the bridge started at 5:00am today, on a wet and dark Thursday. As I sailed up the entrance to the Golden Gate bay (named after a bay in Turkey that a US Naval commander thought it resembled) I could see it ahead in the darkness, it’s lights slowly blinking. Almost seductively winking. It’s prominent colour, International Orange, was not evident – just it’s black outline against the sky. It used to be the longest single-span suspension bridge in the world, until 1964, but as I drew closer to it, it became apparent why it is often known as the “Colossus of the Pacific”. I ran to the top deck of the ship I was on and stood there in the cold dark as this bridge drew closer, feeling as if it was bearing down on me. It’s orange colour now accentuated close up by the sodium lighting on the roadways above. It was mesmerising, and I was only underneath the bridge, not even able to be seduced by it’s views and dizzying heights up above. As I stood on deck, and as the bridge swooped over me I felt a headrush and a brief moment of being disoriented, just as when I was a child in the London Planetarium, at the moment when Jupiter seems to accelerate and sweeps past as the camera spins on it axis. At 5:55am I felt such a high from finally facing up from underneath this monster of a construction and meeting it almost head on. I don’t quite know why I felt as fearful of the bridge as I did – being a logical person – but I became aware that all around me would be the points of impact where hundreds of people over the years had met their deaths, and that, on the dark wet deck of a boat in the early hours was a sobering thought that countered my giddiness.

This year sees the launch of the year-long celebrations leading up to May 2012, when it will be the 75th anniversary since the opening of the bridge, and I am certain that such heightened media awareness will no doubt lead to an increase in the steady stream of suicidal deaths there. A similar thing occurred in 1987 and a media blackout was suggested in order to cut down on the copycat suicide effect. The bridge committee recently agreed to build a suicide prevention system at a cost of nearly 40 million dollars. Despite many different options suggested, such as high-sided perspex barriers, or taller railings,  the final decision has been to build a net that runs the length of the bridge, on both sides, that protrudes about 16 feet outwards. Whether this will prevent suicide, or merely provide a small obstacle to those who are determined to die remains to be seen. As I’m sitting here writing this, looking back to where the bridge sits at the mouth of the bay, towering over nearby Alcatraz, I feel safer having some distance between me and it. A bit like laughing at funerals, I worry that should I ever find myself on the bridge, it would become too mesmerising and seductive, and that I would have an overwhelming compulsion to dare myself to go as near to the point of jumping that I could (without actually jumping). I’m not suicidal in the least, just weak-willed, and I think the bridge has a stronger “will” than most people who wander onto it. Being of good mental health does not protect you form the bridge – a fairly reliable study found that only 39% of people who jumped were known to be receiving mental health help – so clearly there could be an element of spontaneous self-destruction that may take over some of those who ultimately jump. It would be interesting to see how many San Franciscans stay away from the bridge because of such worries. Or perhaps it’s just me?

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University