Final destination, Golden Gate Bridge

Photo by Flickr user yuzu. Click for sourceThere’s a remarkable article on the world’s most popular suicide spot, San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, in the latest American Journal of Psychiatry.

The article has several case studies of people who have died from jumping from the bridge and some fascinating quotes from one of the few people who have survived their attempts.

It is full of curious snippets of information, and one of the clearest things to come through from the article is that the bridge has a sort of iconic attraction for those wanting to kill themselves (indeed, in hindsight, the name itself seems darkly ironic).

This is not just a morbidly romantic statement, it seems to be backed up by research:

Evidence that the Golden Gate Bridge serves as a suicide magnet is provided by Seiden and Spence’s study of individuals who jumped from either the Golden Gate Bridge or the Bay Bridge, both of which connect to San Francisco. The bridges were built within 1 year of each other, have similar heights, and are similarly lethal to jumpers. Seiden and Spence looked at individuals who drove onto either bridge to kill themselves. (They excluded suicides in which the person walked onto either bridge, as the Golden Gate Bridge has pedestrian access while the Bay Bridge does not.)

They found that between 1937 and 1979, 58 people drove across the Bay Bridge to commit suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge. However, no one drove across the Golden Gate Bridge to commit suicide from the Bay Bridge. This suggests that the Golden Gate Bridge has a powerful association with suicide in the minds of some individuals, to the extent that they would drive over one potentially lethal bridge to die at another.

The article also mentions some other facts: the idea that the death is painless is a myth – jumpers die from massive heart, chest or nervous system injuries or by drowning; jumping from the bridge has a 99% fatality rate; there are only 28 known survivors; the suicide rate is counted solely on recovered bodies, bodies washed out to sea, jumpers witnessed but not found, and unclaimed cars in the parking lot are not counted.

The article reminds me of the uncomfortable 2006 film The Bridge about people who jumped from the bridge.

It’s uncomfortable viewing because it is one of the few documentaries to address the life history, psychological state, motivations and final moments of people who committed suicide (akin to the ‘psychological autopsy‘ used by professionals), but also because it was made in quite an unethical way.

The filmmakers asked permission to place cameras near the bridge to capture the landscape, but instead filmed jumpers. They then contact the families of those who had died and interviewed them about the persons’ life but without informing them that they’d got film of them dying.

The result is a equally fascinating, insightful, tragic and disturbing and I’ve never settled how comfortable I am with the final product.

The American Journal of Psychiatry article finishes by recommending, on the basis of good evidence, that a suicide barrier would prevent deaths at the bridge.

One of the clearest findings in suicide research is that reducing access to lethal methods reduces suicide (going against the myth that ‘if someone wants to kill themselves, they’ll always find a way’).

Apparently, after much discussion a barrier for the Golden Gate Bridge has been agreed, but it is stalled while surveys are carried out and no final completion date has been agreed.

Link to PubMed entry for Golden Gate Bridge article.

3 Comments

  1. dnwake
    Posted November 3, 2009 at 5:07 pm | Permalink

    Have the authors ever looked at a map of the San Francisco Bay Area? In order to drive over the Golden Gate Bridge to get to the Bay Bridge, one would have to be starting from Marin County, which is a very expensive, exclusive and lightly populated region. On the other hand, there is a huge universe of people who would have to cross the Bay Bridge to get to the Golden Gate Bridge.

  2. Posted November 3, 2009 at 6:19 pm | Permalink

    The Golden Gate has a pedestrian footpath. The Bay Bridge does not. Mystery solved.

  3. Posted November 3, 2009 at 6:22 pm | Permalink

    The Golden Gate has a pedestrian footpath. The Bay Bridge does not; nor even a shoulder to pull over one’s car in order to get out and jump. Mystery solved.


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