January 1st, 2018

Does preventative fencing curb suicide attempts?

Suicide is the tenth leading cause of death in this country. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, men die from suicide three and half times more than women while women attempt suicide two and half more times than men. Of the more than 40,000 people who commit suicide every year, less than 10 percent of them end their lives by other means, including jumping off high structures.

No doubt you’ve heard of the more than 1,600 people who have jumped to their deaths from the Golden Gate Bridge in California, which now has netting to catch those who fall. New York’s George Washington Bridge, from which 48 people jumped between 2014 and 2016, installed temporary preventive fencing on its south side in September.

There has been some controversy regarding preventive fencing as a successful tool. Does the fence actually prevent people from committing suicide or do they simply find alternate methods?

In the case of the Bloor Viaduct in Toronto, more than 400 suicides took place from its construction in 1918 until 2003. Once the fencing, or Luminous Veil as it’s known, was erected, there were no more suicides. However, it didn’t statistically change the city’s overall rate of suicide from other comparable bridges.

Gustavo Turecki, M.D., Ph.D.., psychiatry chair and director for the Group of Suicide Studies at McGill University in Montreal, said those who succeed in killing themselves will take a chance with whatever method they have available at the time.

“There is no specific psychopathological profile of individuals who die by suicide from jumping, for instance as opposed to hanging or firearms,” he said. “The method of choice is opportunistic rather than associated with a profile of the suicide.”

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in New York revised a study this year from its original 2008 version stating that “the use of bridge barriers is the most effective means of bridge suicide prevention.” The National Association of Mental Illness supports preventive fencing which can mean the difference between attempting and succeeding.

Within the municipalities of those bridges, however, some argue the expense of the fencing as well as the aesthetics. Take the example of two bridges in Maine.

The Memorial Bridge over the Kennebec River in Augusta received media attention 11 years ago when fencing erected in 1983 was removed during a renovation project. It was subsequently replaced once the project ended at a cost of $350,000. There have been 14 jumping suicides from the bridge, all occurring before 1983. Without the fencing, there were sweeping views of the city from the bridge. With the fencing, however, there were no reported jumping deaths. Jumping from other structures in the city, however, remained unchanged.

The Penobscot Narrows Bridge has seen eight suicides since opening in 1931. There is no safety fencing but it does have solar powered hotlines on either end (which frequently malfunction). This measure, however, did not deter the latest known suicide in March of 2017.

According to a June article in Bangor Daily News, preventive fencing is seen as “too expensive and ugly” with a cost speculation between $500,000 and $1 million. As a result, legislation for it was shot down.

Greg Marley, LCSW, clinical director and senior trainer with the Suicide Prevention Team at NAMI, said studies show that 90 percent of those who were deterred by fencing – along with subsequent mental health care – don’t repeat their suicidal tendencies.

“Someone in suicidal crisis can be interrupted or slowed down so the moment passes and they can get beyond it,” he said. “It’s a combination of fencing and suicidal hotline signage. Help is available and that makes a difference.”

Cathy Barber, research manager of the Harvard Injury Control Research Center, acknowledged that around 10 percent of the people who attempt suicide die and about 90 percent do not. But that’s not the whole story.

“Of that 90 percent, there are about 20- to 25 percent who reattempt at least one more time but with non-fatal results,” she said. Barber also cited an Austrian study that asked attempters how long it took for them to decide to take their own lives. Forty-eight percent said 10 minutes or less.

A 2015 study published in The Lancet Psychiatry showed that deterring suicide by removing the opportunity to jump in what they termed “suicide hotspots,” along with encouraging “help-seeking” and intervention by a third party, were successful methods of prevention.

There are some who believe jumpers choose a “hotspot” because of media coverage. It becomes a high profile way to kill oneself often leading to copycat acts.

“One limiting factor in high spaces is that people don’t choose it very often. You need to travel to get to it,” explained Barber. “As with guns, high jumps share the inability to change your mind mid-attempt. You can’t take it back.”

By Eileen Weber

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