Can bridge barriers save lives?

Advocates ask state to install barriers to prevent suicides on Rhode Island's big bridges

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 11/28/19

Bristol resident Bryan Ganley was about 21 years old when he got a late night call from his best friend, who said he wanted to end his life.

Mr. Ganley was unable to change his friend’s …

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Can bridge barriers save lives?

Advocates ask state to install barriers to prevent suicides on Rhode Island's big bridges

Posted

Bristol resident Bryan Ganley was about 21 years old when he got a late night call from his best friend, who said he wanted to end his life.

Mr. Ganley was unable to change his friend’s mind, and that experience, and the pain of losing his friend, led him to volunteer to try to help others through the Samaritans. He’s been with the Samaritans for nearly four decades now, and though it is impossible to quantify, he has undoubtedly helped hundreds, if not thousands of other people’s best friends live to see another day.

Mr. Ganley claims not to be a “numbers guy,” but he heard that each suicide impacts 60 other people: family, friends, neighbors, colleagues … he’s not sure where he heard the figure, but it seems fair.

One thing he does know, from his years with the Samaritans, is that when someone calls and they are feeling desperate and suicidal, you take away the means for them to harm themselves. “If someone tells me that they have a loaded gun in their lap, or I can hear them fumbling with a bottle of pills, I tell them to take that and put it in the other room. You instantly cut the risk in half.

“That bridge at the end of town? That’s a loaded gun.”

She watched him jump

Melissa Cotta of Tiverton would agree with that number of 60 lives impacted by each suicide, considering how the suicide of a complete stranger has, and continues to, impact her life.

“It was 2016, right before Valentine’s Day, and I was on my way back from Colt State Park, with a friend,” she said. “Traffic was backing up on the bridge, and I remember thinking that it was a weird day for construction. Everyone was driving around this one vehicle. I stopped. That’s when the man got out.”

Ms. Cotta has a clinical background in crisis intervention, so she was, it would seem, in the right place at the right time. She tried to get the man’s attention, to alter his state of mind and communicate with him. “It was 30 seconds tops, but time stood still,” she said. “There were so many things happening.”

Unfortunately, Ms. Cotta was unable to distract the man long enough to change the course of events. It’s 30 seconds she will remember for a lifetime, and it has led her to join forces with Mr. Ganley and co-found “Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing,” an organization devoted to promoting suicide prevention barriers on local bridges. “I feel like the prevalence of this is much higher than we realize,” she said. “So many attempts aren’t publicly reported, and when people aren’t aware of incidents, we get the impression that they are isolated.”

How many jump from the bridge?

As it turns out, it is not that easy to obtain clear numbers on how many people are attempting to end their lives from local bridges. Asked for numbers, the Rhode Island Bridge and Turnpike Authority sent the inquiry to the Rhode Island Department of Health. The health department maintain numbers, broken out by bridges, but with several years combined. According to Public Information Officer Joseph Wendelken, this is because the health department maintains a “small numbers policy” due to privacy concerns. According to those records, in the years 2010 through 2018, six people ended their lives jumping from the Jamestown Bridge, nine from the Pell (Newport) Bridge, and 12 from the Mt. Hope Bridge.

However, those numbers might be incomplete.

“Only the coroner’s office can declare a suicide,” said Denise Panichas, the executive director of the Samaritans. She said it is possible that some unwitnessed falls from bridges could be classified as death by water, same as a person who fell from a boat and drowned.

Police frequently called to bridge

Those numbers do not include attempts, nor do they include threats, responding to which, according to one Bristol patrolman, is a routine on-the-job occurrence.

The Bristol Police maintain records of the numbers of times they are called to the bridge for any reason at all. According to Lt. Steven St. Pierre, from November 2018 to November 2019, Bristol Police responded to the bridge 481 times. To be clear, that figure is for any reason at all — debris, animals, accidents — that is the total number of times. However, Lt. St. Pierre noted that there were an additional 34 times in which a caller specifically cited a person on the bridge or heading to the bridge with intent; and in an additional five instances, it was reported that an individual was removed from the bridge and brought to the hospital.

Lt. St. Pierre noted that Portsmouth will have its own set of records responsive to the bridge, as will the Rhode Island State Police. That underscores another flaw with regards to records-keeping of bridge incidents: redundancy. Bristol’s records include one on-the-record attempt where the individual left the bridge deck, and that was the October incident in which the person was rescued through an effort by Portsmouth residents and a Rhode Island state trooper. That was a Portsmouth call, to which Bristol responded to assist, and the state police assisted materially. Therefore, all three agencies will have that incident in their annual stats, to one degree or another.

A barrier would save lives

From their view on the front lines of this issue, Ms. Cotta and Mr. Ganley are clear about what they think the solution should be: a barrier.

“A barrier would force a pause,” said Ms. Cotta. “And a pause is the opportunity to create an intervention … If you can create a second of delay, you have the time to ask a person what they want to do tomorrow.” Often, that is all you need.

Suicide is, by it’s very nature, an impulsive act — and the very accessibility of a bridge perhaps makes it more impulsive than most.

“Life is hard, people get distressed, and this bridge provides an easy means,” said Ms. Cotta.

Perhaps nobody knows what it means to regret impulsivity as well as Kevin Hines, a member of that smallest of fraternities: the fewer than 30 people who have survived a jump from the Golden Gate Bridge.

In September of 2000, the California resident was suffering from a bipolar disorder, and he responded to the voices in his head that were encouraging him to jump from the massive bridge. He did, regretting it immediately and completely.

His experience is not unusual among survivors; almost universally, regret is the emotion they recall most strongly in the seconds it takes to fall from the bridge deck to the surface of the water.

Bridge railing is extremely low

Mr. Ganley notes that not only is the lack of a barrier problematic, the existing railing is woefully inadequate. “I’m a contractor, and I’m not allowed within 6 feet of a 12-foot drop without a harness,” he said. The Mt. Hope Bridge rail is 34.75” high, which is more than an inch shorter than the residential building code for a backyard deck, and 7” shorter than commercial code. “It’s lower than the law requires for the railing on the deck of my house,” Mr. Ganley said.

He does not think that nets, like the one being built under the Golden Gate Bridge, are the answer. “People can be badly injured falling 20 feet into a metal net, and then first responders have to get them out,” he said.

“It’s so simple. Put up a fence,” he said. “There’s new composite fencing, it’s lightweight. Let’s stop them at the curb.”

Mr. Ganley and Ms. Cotta are advocating for a fully-funded study to come up with a plan, and he notes that that there is federal funding available to study suicide prevention measures.

“I can’t recall if there has ever been a legislative study looking into engineering and costs,” said Samaritans Director Panichas. “Will a barrier bring down the overall suicide rate? I don’t know, but we should explore all options.”

Will people find another way?

One of the most oft-repeated arguments against installing barriers is the idea that a suicidal person will just find another way. Setting aside the fact that a lot of jumpers are not chronically suicidal but impulsive or suffering from bipolar or another treatable mental illness, statistics bear out the fact that survivors don’t just “find another way.”

Multiple studies reveal that the overwhelming majority of people who attempt suicide never do so again. In one notable case, a Dr. Richard Seiden followed up with 515 would-be suicides who were prevented from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in the 1970s by the California Highway Patrol. He published his results in a 1978 article that revealed that only 7 percent of survivors went on to die by suicide later in life.

“It’s up to us, as fully healthy people, to be responsible for those who need to be protected,” said Mr. Ganley.

Ms. Cotta agrees. “It’s a societal thing. We all have responsibility for each other.”

‘Cognitive constriction’

As Melissa witnessed that cold day on the Mt. Hope Bridge, people actively attempting suicide go into an altered mental state that has become known as cognitive constriction. It’s effectively tunnel vision, and in the moment, getting a person out of that state may be the only way to save them. “If someone is up there threatening suicide, that’s a medical emergency,” said Mr. Ganley.

It’s also why bridge signs and emergency phones may not, in the moment, be as effective as advocates would like to believe. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline released a white paper in 2008 (and reissued in 2017), titled “Suicide Prevention on Bridges.” Authored by the organization’s director, John Draper, the paper asserts that while hotlines are beneficial for helping with depression and suicidal ideation, by the time a person is walking up a span, it may be too late for hotlines. When cognitive constriction has set in, barriers are the method of choice.

The full paper, which can be accessed and read at suicidepreventionlifeline.org, cites numerous studies from locations around the world, indicating that barriers reduce suicides from bridges by as much as 86 percent, and once thwarted from their original method of choice, most do not pursue another.

No one knows what it would cost

According to Bianca Costantino, an account executive with RDW, the Bridge and Turnpike Authority’s public relations firm, who responded in a written statement: “RITBA is well aware of the idea of installing fencing or netting on bridges. We continue to consider the many factors associated with such an initiative. Among other things, RITBA has been monitoring what other bridge authorities have done in regard to fencing or netting. For example, the Golden Gate Bridge is in the process of installing steel cable netting. This project is currently estimated to cost $211 million. Before anything can be attached to or constructed on our bridges, we’d have to engage in engineering studies which would include load and wind analysis. Those types of studies have not been initiated.”

Mr. Costantino said that while no one knows what a barrier would cost, one argument he rejects out of hand is concern about what a barrier might do to the view from the bridge. “The view of the bay from the bridge is beautiful,” he said. “But not when there’s a body in the water.”

Mr. Ganley and Ms. Cotta are hopeful that they can meet with and encourage them to take action on this issue. Mr. Ganley cites the case of the Braga Bridge in Fall River as an example of how he thinks this process should play out. “In 1986, three people went off in a month, a task force proposed a barrier, everyone thought it was a great idea, and the agreement was signed right away.”

“Depression is treatable, and suicide is preventable," said Mr. Ganley. “We just want something that will give people time, get them through, and they will live another day.”

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