MADELEINE BRAND, host:
In Seattle, the Aurora Bridge has the dubious distinction of being the second most popular bridge for suicides after San Francisco's Golden Gate. Now Washington State officials want to put a fence up to prevent people from jumping. Other people, though, do not like that idea. NPR's Martin Kaste reports.
MARTIN KASTE: I'm standing on the Aurora Bridge. It's a 1930s structure, about 160 feet up. Up here, you can see the Cascade Mountains in one direction, the Olympics in another, and down below me, you can see the houseboat where Tom Hanks was all mopey in "Sleepless in Seattle." But this bridge is also something of a favorite for suicides over the decades. About three or four a year have jumped from here, and recently, it's been more than that, six or seven a year, and many land down here, right by the Seattle offices of Adobe Systems. Barbie Fink is outside taking a smoke break.
Ms. BARBIE FINK (Group Manager, Adobe Systems Incorporated): After people have jumped off the bridge and they've landed in the parking lot, I've kind of seen the cleaning up and the aftermath of that. It's definitely a hard thing for people to deal with.
KASTE: This area used to be more of an industrial waterfront. Now, it's a high-tech office park. And that means the suicides have a bigger audience.
Mr. RYAN THURSTON (Senior Design Engineer, Impinj, Inc.): He was sitting on the outer railing for quite awhile and a crowd kind of gathered outside.
KASTE: Ryan Thurston works for another tech company down here. He recalls a jumper last fall.
Mr. THURSTON : We actually didn't see him hit the ground, but you know, we heard it and it was one of those sounds that you just - you won't forget.,
KASTE: Thurston has had enough. He organized some of his colleagues and neighbors and they convinced the state to build a barrier. It'll be about eight feet high and costs six or seven million dollars. They won the politicians over by arguing that when suicidal people encounter a barrier, it often stops them cold.
Mr. THURSTON: The data shows that, you know, they're not going to go elsewhere.
KASTE: Advocates of the barriers point to a 1970s study that tracked people after they'd been prevented from jumping from the Golden Gate. It found that most of them did not go on to commit suicide later. But there are some skeptics.
Dr. GARRETT GLASGOW (Political Science, University of California-Santa Barbara): Barriers are pretty good at keeping people from jumping from that particular bridge. But that's not the same thing as reducing suicides.
KASTE: Garrett Glasgow is a political science professor the University of California-Santa Barbara. He's critical of an effort to put up a barrier on a nearby scenic bridge. He acknowledges that there are studies showing declines in a region's overall suicide rate after a barrier's installed, but he says those rates usually don't fall very much.
Dr. GLASGOW: And if I can reread those studies carefully, they explicitly say, well, we were unable to find a statistically significant change in the suicide rate, meaning a change that we can safely say isn't due a chance.
KASTE: It's doubts like this, along with aesthetic engineering and financial considerations, that have stymied the push for more barriers on other bridges. Gary Spielman is the former director of Suicide Prevention for New York State. He recently wrote a report for the bridge authority arguing against barriers on bridges over the Hudson River.
Mr. GARY SPIELMAN (Former Director, Suicide Prevention, New York State Office of Mental Health): By focusing on a bridge as a suicide site, we shouldn't delude ourselves into thinking we have done a real good job of reducing or preventing suicides, because you have to attack this problem in the community, not on the bridge.
KASTE: Spielman prefers what he calls human barriers, more programs to detect and prevent suicidal behavior ahead of time. Still, Spielman says, some bridges are different. When a bridge develops in an especially morbid reputation, he says, barriers may be the only solution. Martin Kaste, NPR News, Seattle.
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