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Why the Stigma of Suicide Should Not Sway the Debate About Nets Under the Golden Gate Bridge

The silence and callousness about suicide is personal for me.

Last week I read some encouraging news about the decades-long push by suicide prevention advocates to construct a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge that would stop people from jumping to their deaths.

After 40 years of debate, Caltrans and the regional Metropolitan Transportation Commission appear ready to contribute $44 million toward installing giant nets under the 1.7-mile span, according to news reports. The Golden Gate Bridge district would need to kick in as much $12 million in toll funds. It’s an option bridge district directors have long opposed, but increased public and political pressure appears to be making a difference.

What struck me the most about these recent reports was the buried news angle: 2013 was a record year for the number of suicides—46 confirmed deaths. While officials have not kept exact numbers on the total number of deaths since the bridge was built, estimates are as as high as 2,000.

The media are often hesitant to report on the issue of suicide to avoid copycat incidents, which is what the Centers for Disease Control recommends in its report, Suicide Contagion and the Reporting of Suicide. It recommends avoiding ongoing or prominent coverage of suicide and leaving out details about the method of suicide. It even suggests reporters not focus on the positive attributes of someone who committed suicide to avoid glorifying those who end their lives.

While I understand the logic behind such recommendations, I also worry that by not reporting more comprehensively on suicides, the news media only reinforce the stigma and contempt many people have for those who take their own life.

When I last wrote about this issue in May 2012, it was the 75th anniversary of the bridge, and one particular story in the San Francisco Chronicle’s online site, SFGate, reported on the increase in jumps at the time. Reader comments opposing the building of the estimated $45 million barrier were numerous—and they were the same ones that were made when the barrier was first proposed.

I was taken aback by how callous and offensive so many of the comments were.

“Biggest waste of  $45 million ever. Let ‘em swim,” wrote one SFGate reader back in July.

Similar sentiments were expressed in last week’s stories about the funding package for the barrier coming closer to reality: “It’s dumb to blame an inanimate object for the choices made by people, and worse to force all the rest of us to bear the cost. If certain people want a barrier, let them fund it themselves,” wrote a reader in response to a San Jose Mercury News story.

There were also comments about a suicide barrier being a waste of money because of a common belief that those deterred from jumping off the bridge would find some other way of killing themselves, which studies show is not the case.

Larry Wallack, a former UC Berkeley public health professor who now teaches at Portland State University and was once part of a coalition formed to advocate for a suicide barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge, explained why such sentiments are so pervasive and how they remain a major challenge in suicide prevention efforts.

“The fact that people are more concerned about the beauty of the bridge or the attractiveness of the view than the relatively small costs of intervention reflects the greater public health struggle we all face,” he said. “This is compounded by the fact that there is a great stigma on suicide, still. For the most part, there is little sympathy for people who take their own lives.”

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