Head of Psychology at Birmingham City University, Professor Craig Jackson, joins in the celebrations of the 80th Birthday of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of the most iconic and symbolic engineering achievements in the United States. He asks if current measures proposed to tackle the bridge’s darker reputation as a suicide hotspot will do enough to reduce the high number of fatalities that occur there each year.

The Golden Gate Bridge will celebrate its 80th birthday later this week. I have to admit that I am a huge fan of this bridge and I remain transfixed by its beauty, its history, and the sheer size of it. It is a legendary construction. The Golden Gate Bridge opened to the public on May 27th 1937, when over one million people walked the 1.7 miles from end to end on the opening Pedestrian Day. The next day, at 12 noon, the bridge was opened to vehicles, when President Franklin D. Roosevelt pressed a telegraph key in the White House, 2441 miles away, on the opposite side of the USA. When Roosevelt pressed the key, every fire siren, foghorn, church bell and ship’s whistle in the San Francisco bay area was sounded. The Golden Gate Bridge was the largest single-span suspension bridge in the world (holding the title for 27 years until it was taken by the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge in New York).

The Golden Gate Bridge opened ahead of schedule and under budget (a feat which would now be much envied in the modern age of construction) and was immediately recognised as one of the wonders of the modern world. It is an amazing icon of engineering; a majestic giant of a bridge that was wanted by popular demand, and made for the people of the greater Bay Area, earning itself the name of “The Peoples’ Bridge”. This historic bridge, also known as the Colossus of the Pacific, has held many prestigious records and achievements in its history – recognised as a modern wonder of the world by the American Institute of Architects, it was completed with fewer construction worker deaths than was expected, and has only ever been closed due to weather conditions on three occasions. The bridge holds many more impressive records relating to its design and construction, as well as the impact it has made on the Californian and American psyche. It is, for instance, the only bridge ever to feature on the cover of Rolling Stone magazine (February 1967). The chief engineer and main driving visionary of the Golden Gate Bridge was ambitious engineer Joseph Strauss, and it is little surprise that he was also a poet as well as a bridge designer – with Strauss’s poem “The Mighty Task is Done” writ large on one of the towers of the bridge. Another less fortunate record held by the bridge relates to the unusually high number of suicidal deaths that have taken place there.

For decades it has been known that the Golden Gate Bridge has become a focal point for suicidal jumpers. Put simply, over 1000 people have deliberately killed themselves by jumping from the bridge to the waters 220 feet below. The Golden Gate Bridge has accrued the largest number of suicidal deaths for a single location, not just in the USA, but in the Western world, topped only by the Aokighara Forest in Japan, a country where suicide has been culturally accepted for centuries. The exact number of fatalities at the Golden Gate Bridge is often contradictory, and local news reports of deaths are often kept quiet in order to reduce the likelihood of copycat suicide attempts (see The Sorrows of Young Werther by Goethe, and the “Werther effect”). Because suicide attempts are usually a covert and secretive behaviour, many people attempt to take their own life at the Golden Gate Bridge at night, or when it is shrouded in dense advection fog that regularly obscures the bridge. Additionally of course, many people who commit suicide there are lonely and isolated, and are often not missed or reported missing by others, and in many other cases, the bodies of many suicidal jumpers are never found in the waters of the bay. Abandoned vehicles of those who have jumped are occasionally found at the nearby visitor centre and vista point parking areas. Consequently, an accurate figure of the exact number of suicidal fatalities occurring at the Golden Gate Bridge is not available, but estimates vary from 1000-1400 fatal jumps in total at present.  Despite increased surveillance, CCTV, telephone helplines dotted along the entire span of the bridge, dedicated SFPD and CHiP patrols, and public education programmes, dozens of people each year choose to jump to their deaths from the public walkway. Some suggest that the high suicide rate may be a residual artefact of “Californian craziness”, or perhaps it is long-term fallout from the drug-taking of the 1960s and 1970s that is catching up with Californians. This argument can easily be countered by examining the virtually non-existent suicide rates occurring at the other 5 major bridges in the San Francisco area. There is clearly something about this particular bridge that acts like a peculiar magnet.

Golden gate bridge

Golden Gate Bridge

Understanding why so many people chose to end their lives there, and why they choose the methods that they do, is vital if the future reputation of the Golden Gate Bridge is to improve. For those people with suicidal intent when on the bridge, all they need do to succeed in dying is to hop over a four foot barrier and they are able to jump to their deaths. Unstopped or unfettered, they are free to drop. Footage of many of the jumpers there shows some people climbing the barrier and then proceeding to jump off the bridge straight away, while others sit or stand a while, perhaps contemplating their lives before jumping. Some choose backflips, some just fall, and others actively dive into the bay. Some who have climbed the barrier do decide to climb back over, having changed their minds, and occasionally passers-by reach out to them and talk them into coming back to safety. Sadly however, the majority of those who climb the barrier seem to complete their jump before the authorities can reach them. The 220 feet drop and the 90 mph entry into the cold waters of the bay is almost certainly likely to result in death (with only 4% of those who jumped ever surviving to talk about it). Only now, almost 60 years after the suicide epidemic at the site began, has the Bay Bridge Authority started to engineer ways to realistically reduce suicide attempts from the bridge. In the current climate, where talking about mental health and suicidal feelings are currently being encouraged, the Golden Gate Bridge serves as a spectacular reminder, a massive visual metaphor, that broader society and experts alike have a long way to go in understanding and thereby preventing suicide. Although the Golden Gate Bridge is not to blame for the suicidal epidemic that has developed around it, there is something exceptional and almost magical about this structure that lures the lost, lonely, desperate and suicidal towards it. In addition, the Golden Gate Bridge also seems to have some kind of ability to influence and activate spontaneous suicides in other seemingly “okay” individuals at the bridge, who did not go there with any suicidal intent.

The reasons why people choose to kill themselves are very complex; sometimes they may be related to mental health issues and sometimes not. Many reliable studies of suicide have shown that suicide attempts are not the sole preserve of those with few social options open to them (traditionally suicidal individuals were believed to be those with little educational attainment; poor employment prospects; reduced capacity for emotional relationships; and with little financial prospect) but that people are prone to suicidal attempts whatever their socioeconomic or relationship status. Further, many suicidal deaths occur among members of those social groups that were traditionally thought to be suicide-immune. People devoid of mental health issues, with plenty of “life-options” often choose to end their lives, usually due to seemingly intolerable levels of distress and a lack of perceived solutions, leading to overwhelming urges to die as a means of escape. In short, whatever the background reasons, a suicident believes that death is somehow preferable to living. In the UK, suicide fatalities have been increasing year-on-year since 2007, beforehand they had undergone a steady reduction throughout the 1990s and early 2000, reaching an all-time low in 2006. At present UK data shows the single demographic group at greatest risk of suicidal death is that of white males aged 45 and above (replacing young males aged 18-25 as the biggest at-risk group). The Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California have coronal court evidence from 213 suicidal deaths occurring at the Golden Gate Bridge from 1995 – 2005 which show that only 40% of the suicidal fatalities involved people who were suffering mental health problems at the time of their deaths. This single site study accurately reflects the results of countless other epidemiological larger-scale studies looking into suicides – showing that suicide is more than an extreme response to stress or depression. Three quarters of suicidal fatalities at the bridge were males; with 82% of male suicidents being white, followed by Asians (12%); Blacks (4%); and Latinos (2%). For female suicidents, 85% were white and just under 4% were from each of the Asian, Black, Latino and other mixed race groups. This corroborates with other studies from around the globe which consistently suggest suicide is a major risk for older white males.

Some think that the high level of suicidal fatalities at the Golden Gate Bridge among those who have an absence of clinical depression, anxiety or mental health problems in their lives may be evidence of a form of “Paris syndrome”. This is not a recognised medical or psychiatric condition, but it is a curious phenomenon often reported in some tourists who are taken ill and feel unusual sensations when visiting foreign cities, often because of the disparity between what they expect to encounter and what they actually experience. The name “Paris Syndrome” was derived from a reportedly high number of Japanese tourists taken ill when visiting Paris, who seemingly expected Paris to be a cultural haven, symbolic of the European renaissance, and to be populated by romantic couples. When this great expectation was not realised upon their actual visit, the disappointed tourists often felt disoriented, groggy and unbalanced and required medical treatment (usually recuperating after some rest and re-hydration). The Golden Gate Bridge is such a vast megastructure that dominates the land and sea for miles around, and in my opinion, I believe that some individuals who enter the bridge cannot help but be in awe of it, to the point that they become overwhelmed, confused, desperate and even distressed by it. The Golden Gate Bridge may appear calm and serene from a distance, but the reality is that it carries Highway 101, with roughly 110,000 vehicles using it each day. When standing on the bridge it is incredibly noisy, disorienting and as far away as it is possible to be from the peace and quiet that many visitors may go there expecting to find. Spontaneous suicide is by no means as fanciful as it may sound.

The Bay Bridge Authority is soon due to begin the installation of a new Suicide Deterrent System (formerly the planned Suicide Prevention Barrier) which will be the result of a consultation process that lasted several years, where the public and professionals alike were asked to suggest designs for a physical barrier that could reduce suicidal (and recreational) jumpers. Suggestions included 8 feet tall clear plexi-glass barriers, horizontal railings, vertical railings and even winglets at the top of the railings, like those seen in prison perimeter fences, to prevent people scaling the barrier. Such a competition had rules of course, and some of them were technically complex, including: the barrier would not cause nuisance to sidewalk users of the bridge; be maintainable; not compromise the security of the bridge; not have a negative impact on the wind stability of the bridge; be cost-effective; and have a minimal aesthetic impact upon the bridge. From the consultation process, the winning design that was chosen to reduce (not stop) suicides at the Golden Gate Bridge was a safety net, which is intended to protrude approximately 20 feet outwards from the bridge, and will run the entire 1.7 miles of the bridge (on both sides). This net will be positioned 20 feet below the ledge that jumpers launch themselves from, and if not deterring those from jumping, the net may merely serve to delay or impede their intended progress towards the waters below. This safety net has been costed at $200 million and will be completed in 2020.

I am of course pleased that something has been done to address suicidal jumpers at this site, however, a safety net may be a counter-productive intervention, especially when compared to a physical barrier. Many famously tall landmarks around the world have historically had problems with suicidal jumpers, including the Eiffel Tower, the Nanjing Bridge, the Bloor Street viaduct and the Empire State Building. In those cases, and in countless others, physical barriers have been successful in drastically reducing, even eradicating completely, suicide attempts at some locations. In some cases the aesthetics of the landmark have suffered due to physical barriers or railings, but suicides there have been reduced. Placing a safety net along the length of the Golden Gate Bridge will not make significant impacts on suicidal fatalities, and it may even increase the number of “recreational” jumpers, and the Bridge’s history can provide us with some evidence of this. When the Golden Gate Bridge was being constructed, 1936 (three years into the project) saw the first worker fatality, when construction worker Kermit Moore, was crushed. Despite the tragic loss of Moore, construction of the bridge had an extremely high safety record – and a rough rule of engineering at the time was that for every million dollars spent on a bridge project, one worker would be expected to die. The safety record at the bridge was much better than could ever be anticipated. Although Strauss already took workplace safety seriously, he decided to string a safety net underneath the main roadway of the bridge from end to end and side to side, in order to catch any workers should they fall, and, prevent them from going into the water. The presence of the safety net allowed the workers to work more quickly in the dangerous conditions when hanging underneath the bridge, safe in the (perceived) knowledge they would be saved by the net should the worst happen to them. A total of 19 workers were saved by the safety net in those 2 years, and they became members of the elite “Halfway to Hell” club. There are reports of many workers also jumping into the net for fun – encouraged to do so because they knew it would be safe. Tragically, eleven workers were killed on February 17th 1937, when they all fell into the net, and the combined weight of the men and their construction equipment that fell in with them proved too much for the net and moorings, and it collapsed into the waters below.

Safety nets are okay, but physical prevention is much more effective. A safety net protruding from the bridge, that is easy to jump into from the bridge walkway will act like a behavioural nudge – a show-off magnet –  encouraging some people to jump into the net. Would a safety net really change a suicident’s mind if they had decided to die? All it may do is delay the suicidal process, and a committed bridge jumper will merely scramble to the edge of the safety net, and then re-launch themselves again, towards the water below. That the Bay Bridge Authority chose a deterrent-method rather than a barrier-solution is troubling, and it speaks volumes perhaps about how the image of this iconic structure (and what it represents) may be more important than saving the lives of dozens of people each year. One thing I have found from my work in understanding and trying to prevent suicidal death, is that if an individual has decided that they wish to die, then they will find a way to do it, whether they are free members of the public, patients in secure hospital units, or prisoners on suicide watch. Deterrence in the form of a safety net secured beneath the world’s number one man-made suicidal structure, is just not enough to make a serious impact in the fatalities. Hopefully there are lessons we can learn in the UK from the Golden Gate Bridge, when it comes to the prevention of needless suicides. Here’s to another 80 years of this American totem, but hopefully with significantly fewer people dying there.

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Craig Jackson

Craig Jackson

Head of Psychology Division at Birmingham City University