Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

Ithaca’s gorges – and preventing suicide

Balancing beauty and safety

The Grafton Bridge in Auckland, New Zealand has been the site of a natural experiment in suicide prevention.  From 1991-1995, this bridge had a safety barrier to prevent suicide. The barrier was taken down in 1997 and remained down until 2002. During this time, there was a five-fold increase in suicide deaths by jumping from this bridge. In 2002, when safety barriers were re-installed, suicides decreased dramatically.*

I wrote about the Grafton Bridge almost two years ago. Just a couple of weeks ago, I received an e-mail from Des, a reader in New Zealand, asking about the old post. He said that the new barriers, nine years old now, look great, in addition to being effective at preventing suicide.

That same week, the Ithaca Journal ran an article about the construction of safety barriers for the bridges overlooking gorges on and near Cornell University.

There are multiple options for barriers in Ithaca, and it will be a community-wide process to select the option that best meets what has been defined as the challenge of this particular project: balancing the need to prevent suicide with a strong interest in not compromising the beauty of Ithaca's gorges.

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Architect Gilbert Delgado is quoted in the article as saying: "There are nets, there are fences and there are things in between. We wanted to facilitate a discussion about the different types of solutions and garner a response from the public."

As I've read about the process taking place in Ithaca, I've often gotten stuck, not really able to come down on one side of the issue or the other. Obviously, construction of safety barriers is critical to suicide prevention. But, there's a part of me, the part that has nice memories of walking over bridges all over the world and taking in the views, which gets why people are against barriers.

Des's note about the Grafton Bridge said I could look at pictures of it online, so I did. What I saw surprised me. There are no nets and no black fences. Rounded glass panels line the entire bridge. The glass, according to Des, has a plastic film on the inside, so if it is affected by graffiti, it's easy enough to fix. The barriers also provide protection from rain and wind. It's a well-thought-out solution. I hope it provides some inspiration in Ithaca.

*Beautrais, A.L., Gibb, S.J., Fergusson, D.M., Horwood, L.J., & Larkin, G.L. (2009) Removing bridge barriers stimulates suicides: an unfortunate natural experiment. Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry, 43(6), 495-497.

Copyright 2011 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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