Preventing Suicides at “Hot Spots”

A Swiss psychologist friend took me on a tour of his hometown of Bern during which we stopped at Muenster Terrace. He walked me to the edge and pointed out an array of nets above the houses far below the terrace. My friend told me that so many people had leapt to their deaths from the Terrace, ending their own lives and traumatizing the residents in the neighborhood below, that the nets had been installed to prevent suicides.

I asked skeptically whether this just meant that the same people would commit suicide somewhere else. My friend said that there was no evidence that had happened. Careful research backs him up, as it does the success of other barriers to suicide at sites which gain a reputation as a place to end one’s life.

The success at Muenster Terrace is one of multiple demonstrations that the most common suicide site in the world needs a suicide barrier. I discuss that place and how to make it safe in my latest piece at Huffington Post.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College Lonon. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over ten thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

18 thoughts on “Preventing Suicides at “Hot Spots””

  1. It's interesting that you say that the assumption was that if someone wanted to commit suicide, they would find another way. I remember back in the late 70's at an EMT class being told that "cutters cut, jumpers jump, gassers gas, but they don't cross over." As in, each individual has their own vision of how to end their life, and won't easily change.

    1. My immediate reaction is skeptical: how would we know if a dead suicidal person changed his or her mind about method? We can’t ask.
      But I suppose there are interviews with those who fail that can shed some light on that.

  2. I'm sure suicide barriers do stop suicides. People choose particular methods, and I think jumping off a bridge is an exhibitionist act (in other words, the type of person who would do it wouldn't necessarily want to kill him- or herself at home) and often an impulsive one.

    But if they install some sort of barrier, I would hate to see it ruin the aesthetic of walking the bridge and looking down and seeing nothing but the sea. That experience is part of the thrill of all the people who use the bridge and DON'T want to commit suicide. A lot of suicide barriers are ugly and turn walking on a bridge into an experience akin to being in a jail.

    1. A lot of suicide barriers are ugly and turn walking on a bridge into an experience akin to being in a jail.

      A lot? I am aware of only a few bridges around the world have had a suicide barrier added after construction — what examples are you citing?

      1. Anyone who has known the Calvert Street/Duke Ellington Bridge in Washington before and after the installation of the suicide-prevention fence is aware of how sadly that barrier diminished the beauty of the bridge, which is one of the most wonderful structures in the city (designed by the brilliant architect Paul Philippe Cret). Whether there are "a lot" of such bridges I have no idea. The Ellington Bridge is very near where I live, and I never look at it without wishing the barrier gone.

        1. While I agree that suicide prevention should be designed into the architecture, the choice is diminishing the aesthetic beauty of the bridge versus allowing people to diminish society by inflicting pain on the people who hold them dear. I’ve lost family and friends to disease and accidents, and I’ve lost them to suicide. I can tell you suicide is much more difficult to accept. A little lost beauty isn’t that high a price in my opinion.

          It’s also true that fences are more obtrusive than nets. It sounds like the architects made poor choices in the retrofitting, or they were forced into using fences for some reason.

          1. I lost an in-law to suicide and can still see and feel the pain radiating throughout the lives of everyone who loved him. Beyond those costs to loved ones, even if someone took the cold-hearted libertarian view that people who despair to the point of suicide should not be saved because it would abridge their freedom, the case for barriers is still strong because of the damage to strangers. The people in the neighborhood below Muenster Terrace were literally having human bodies crashing onto their roofs and streets — some suicide bridges are over busy roadways and drivers have been killed when jumpers fell into traffic.

          2. On the other hand, that argument doesn't work for the Golden Gate Bridge.

            I lost my brother to suicide too, but interestingly, it actually made me more libertarian on the issue. Part of coming to grips with it was realizing that nobody is ethically obligated to go on living in agony just because the relatives would be upset if he or she decided to end things. And the arguments about how suicide hurts the relatives are all based on that unstated premise.

            Yes, I didn't want to see my brother do this. But I do think he had the right to do it, and that if life was too painful for him, he wasn't obligated to keep living just because I wanted him to.

            To me, the better argument about bridges and suicide barriers is that a lot of these people are probably impulse-suicides who really don't want to die. And that's the real difficulty of this issue– people who are making a considered choice based on their own evaluation of the value (or lack thereof) of their lives are very hard to separate from people who are making a rash decision that doesn't reflect their own best interests or how they will feel if someone stops them.

          3. Keith can answer this better than I, but it's my impression that many (perhaps most?) suicides seem to be impulsive acts. Now, of course we can't ask people who succeed, "Why now instead of next week or next year?"

            If you'll grant my premise that many suicides are impulsive acts, then I think you're wrong in your libertarian view. What right does an individual have to inflict a lifetime of pain (in the case of parents) because of an impulsive act?

            I'd like to be clear about something. I accept that there are reasons and people for whom suicide may be a rational act. I understand that. However, if it is a rational act, there is an explanation that can be provided to the survivors ahead of time. The survivors are owed at least that much in my view.

          4. I think part of it comes down to "ownership", for lack of a better word.

            Does your life belong to you, or does it belong to the people who care about you? And if we are serious that it belongs to you (which I think is rather obvious), then it becomes very troublesome to argue that someone has an ethical obligation to go on living an extremely painful existence just to please friends and relatives.

            My brother had a very bad time for a very long time. His life wasn't fun to live, for all sorts of reasons. In the end, his life may have been the only thing that belonged to him.

            I agree, though, that most suicides are probably impulsive acts. I just think that it is important to not jump from "most" to "all"– it really is something, that, in the end, a rational actor should have the right to do.

  3. Some proportion of suicides are impulsive.Alcohol may also play a part. If the means is not available, the impulse passes.
    But about the decrease in suicides in Bern: Did the nets at Muenster Terrace save impulsive jumpers who then gave up? Or did potential jumpers know about the nets and not even try?

    1. The linked paper is worth reading. My understanding from my Bernese friend is that people quickly stopped trying and then the news coverage of all the deaths stopped which probably had a knock on effect. There were though probably some people who leaped to their death elsewhere after the nets went up, though this was only a fraction of the lives saved at the Terrace (IIRC zero completed suicides since the nets went up).

  4. Keith,

    I've been away from California for a very long time. What is the resistance to putting nets on the bridge?

    1. I think the resistance is largely sincere, based on the misperception that it would only shift suicides elsewhere. If that were true, then it would be foolish to spend the money on the barrier.

      Some people resist the aesthetic change, although the view from the bridge will stay the same (what is proposed are nets below and not a raised rail).

  5. This issue gives me the tiniest bit of empathy for the climate change deniers. I hate the idea of a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate with the same fury a (insert denier stereotype here) has for costly CO2 reduction measures. I love that bridge just as it is, pretty much every suicide barrier idea I've seen has left me really turned off aesthetically, and irrationally wanting to say "Let's not wound the thing and leave it as an eyesore in the middle of the Bay. If you don't want it as it is, tear it down. No suicides then, and Marin would finally be rid of the influence of the filthy hoi polloi from SF they loathe so much."

    Not the stuff of great public policy. I can make no argument against the suicide barrier beyond simple, stupid selfishness regarding my own personal emotions on the bridge. It's pretty clear the questions of science are settled. By my own principles the policy decision is obvious. I just hate the conclusion.

    (A note to deniers… I'm not on your side. When push comes to shove I'm admitting my biases and dealing with it. The rest of the world wishes you'd do the same.)

  6. Thanks for posting this. We have a jumper hot spot in my town and there’s still debate over what to do. I had no idea of the research you’ve cited here and am very glad of the opportunity to add that point of view to the debate. I’m appalled that the newspaper stories on the subject have not included that information.

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