California Has a Plan to Fix the Golden Gate’s Suicide Problem
More people end their lives on the bridge than any other place in the US.
Illustration by Koji Yamamoto
"Nothing says San Francisco like the Golden Gate Bridge," says bridge manager Kary Witt. The "international orange"-colored suspension bridge is iconic in a way that compares only to the Statue of Liberty or the Eiffel Tower.
Yet many people suffering from mental health issues see disappearing into the waves beneath the Golden Gate as a pragmatic way to escape their pain. The reality, of course, is that those seeking to end their lives by jumping from the bridge into the cold water between San Francisco and neighboring Marin County meet a viciously brutal, drawn-out death.
Rather than seamlessly entering the water (as many suicidal people envision), the 245-foot, four-second drop renders jumpers broken and battered, left to slowly drown or die of hypothermia in the frigid waves. According to a report by the San Francisco Chronicle, "The physics of inertia being what they are, internal organs tend to keep going. The force of impact causes them to tear loose. Autopsy reports typically indicate that the jumpers have lacerated aortas, livers, spleens, and hearts. Ribs are often broken, and the impact shoves them into the heart or lungs. Jumpers have broken sternums, clavicles, pelvises, and necks. Skull fractures are common."
Jumping doesn't provide an escape from pain; it's a rush toward an incalculable amount of it. And the 4 percent of jumpers who survive regret the decision. Survivor Ken Baldwin famously told the New Yorker, "I instantly realized that everything in my life that I'd thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped."
The story of the Golden Gate Bridge's attraction to those with suicidal ideation is one that's been told repeatedly since the first person took their life from the bridge only one month after its completion in 1937. It's the most iconic structure in San Francisco, but for the loved ones of the more than 1,600 people who have lost their lives over the bridge's railings, it represents a morbid reality.
In the years since its construction, the Golden Gate Bridge Authority has enacted solutions that don't affect the bridge's appearance but still assist those needing help during their darkest moments. "We bring in psychologists who come in and train our patrol officers. We also work very closely with the California Highway Patrol (CHP) who also patrol the bridge sidewalks," Witt says. "Most of the actual learning takes place by doing it. We had 160 successful interventions last year, so we unfortunately get a lot of practice."
In 1998, public safety patrols were enacted, starting the trend of active suicide prevention. At the end of 2016, it was announced that five more officers were added to Captain Lisa Lacoti's team patrolling the bridge preventing jumpers from following through on their ideations. In addition to trained patrollers, Lacoti mentions that ironworkers on the Bridge volunteer their time to help prevent people from jumping, going so far as to step over the edge in order to retrieve people, since they're comfortable doing so in their daily jobs. Suicide prevention specialists train the ironworkers since they're frequently at the front lines of saving lives.
Despite these efforts, people have campaigned for more than 60 years for more safety features to be installed on the 1.2 mile-long span. For decades they were met with dissent at the idea of altering the iconic image of the bridge. That changed in 2005, when the District Board of Directors agreed to construct a physical suicide barrier, which has turned into a $200 million+ literal safety net project that is slated to begin construction in late 2017. Called the "Golden Gate Bridge Physical Suicide Deterrent System Project," it will result in steel netting which will hang 20 feet below the span, and 20 feet to either side of the bridge, totaling 3.4 miles of net. The barrier is expected to be completed by 2020, and as this rendering shows, it would not drastically alter the look of the bridge.
In a video presentation detailing the many factors that go into the suicide prevention programs on the Golden Gate Bridge, Locati discusses certain behaviors that might indicate potential suicidal behavior, such as a person (who is typically alone) crying, lingering, and looking helpless. But ultimately the unifying factor of those who have come this far to act out a plan to kill themselves is that they are suffering from mental health issues.
"The '70s saw a big spike [in suicides]," Lacoti explains in the video. "That's the first year we all saw a decrease in funding for public health and mental health and housing...1984 was a huge spike: That was the year that AIDS and HIV was discovered…We see a lot of people with drug addictions; we see a lot of people with diagnosed mental health issues who are off their meds."
Witt elaborates that, "almost everyone we come in contact with is in some kind of mental health treatment." He adds that these days, "There's a societal component to this that puts these people here when they wouldn't have been here a few decades ago, plus a lack of medical supervision and a lack of medical resources." This is part of the underlying cause for an increase in millennial suicide attempts in recent years, and illustrates the necessity of reducing the stigma around mental illness.
Today, phones that can be used to call for help are distributed across the span; they link directly to the Bridge's Dispatch Center, so they can direct patrollers to where the call is coming from. "Very few potentially suicidal people use those phones," Witt says. "By far the more common usage of those phones is someone who witnesses someone else who they think is suicidal." This is a good reminder that being a proactive bystander can save lives.
With more widely accepted understanding that suicidal behavior is a public health issue, more resources have become available. In August 2016 the Golden Gate Bridge partnered with Crisis Text Line (CTL) after recognizing that the age demographic of potential jumpers is, "trending so far younger that it's startling," according to Locati. Younger generations are often more comfortable communicating through text than through phone calls, especially when experiencing trauma, hence CTL.
"The Golden Gate Bridge promotes our number, having added 30 signs across the bridge and in parking lots where people often ideate in their cars," says Libby Craig, director of Bay Area Crisis Text Line. "When someone texts 741741 in with the 'GGB' keyword, they get priority in our queue because we believe they are at more imminent risk for suicide."
Suicide does continue to happen on the Golden Gate Bridge, but the tremendous amount of money, humanpower, and other resources being directed towards saving lives is proving effective. It's proof that there is hope: There are so many people who care. With the addition of more patrollers, technological advances, the upcoming suicide barrier, and increased societal empathy toward mental illnesses as genuine health problems, that trend of fewer suicides will more than likely continue.
"I want to give credit to the men and women out there," Witt says. "It is really hard on our employees. This whole activity of intervening in a life crisis with someone is incredibly stressful."
But even his firsthand experience with the worst aspect of his beloved bridge can't undermine the magic of what is truly one of the most magnificent landmarks in the world. "You can't let suicide overshadow the mystique of the Golden Gate Bridge," Witt says. "We get over 10 million visitors annually to the Golden Gate Bridge, they're here to see the beauty, the iconic nature...it's almost a mystical place."
Perhaps over time, and with enough support from the world at large, those with a plan to end their lives will see the Golden Gate Bridge and instead of seeing a way out, be inspired to continue living.
If you or someone you know is considering suicide, help is available. Call 1-800-273-8255 to speak with someone now or text START to 741741 to message with the Crisis Text Line.