Loading

On the cord: suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge By Jenna Dahlin and karl somerville

As the sun shimmers across the vast body of water 220 feet below, layers of fog break into the bay through the towering cables holding up the vermillion orange structure. The architectural masterpiece stands as a token of the beautiful city of San Francisco—residing on the bucket list of travelers and attracting 27,000 visitors daily, according to Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District.

BUILDING THE BARRIER

Despite its historical and visual glory, the 887,000-ton bridge has a dark side: it has become an increasingly common place for people to commit suicide. This epidemic can partially be attributed to the developed magnetism of suicidal sites, meaning it tends to draw despairing people, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge.

Long left as an issue unaddressed, suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge has now become a topic of relevance. Since the opening of the bridge in 1937, the total number of suicides has surpassed 1,700, excluding 300 unconfirmed deaths and countless attempts, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation. More recently, the discussion has concentrated around the installment of prevention nets underneath the rail to deter individuals from jumping over the sides.

The prevention nets are scheduled to be installed by 2021 with an estimated cost of $211 million, according to the Golden Gate Bridge Physical Suicide Deterrent System proposal. Funding is being pooled from various sources, including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrans, the Golden Gate Bridge Highway and Transportation District, state mental health provisions and private donations.

Certain aspects of the proposal, however, have sparked controversy among some San Francisco residents, including issues with cost, efficiency and aesthetics.

Kevin Briggs, a retired patrol sergeant involved with suicide prevention on the bridge, expressed possible concerns regarding the net installations.

“Could that $200 million be spent in the Bay Area doing other things for suicide prevention? Yes, probably a lot,” Briggs said. “On the other hand, I have not lost a family member or friend jumping from [the bridge].”

Briggs also conveyed some community apprehension about the prevention efficacy.

“The big question is: will [people] go somewhere else? In my opinion, and when I was talking to the Marin County coroner, if they really want to [commit suicide], they will,” Briggs said.

John Brooks, a member of the Bridge Rail Foundation, became an advocate for the nets after losing his daughter, Casey Brooks, to suicide on the bridge 11 years ago. John holds a different perspective, stating that the nets would give people the opportunity to reevaluate their decision.

“Especially among young people and teenagers, suicidal ideation can be impulsive. It comes and goes,” John said. “You can feel like your life is over one second, and if you have an opportunity to rethink it, the chances are pretty good that you won't have a recurrence of that thought.”

According to the National Suicide Prevention Resource Center (NSPRC), 87 percent of attempts are impulsive. Physical deterrents are a method of reducing the impulsivity often associated with suicide.

“If it saves one life and that happens to be your child or your loved one, hundreds of millions of dollars is chump change,” John said.

One of the many emergency counseling signs for those in need along the Golden Gate Bridge.

BRIDGE PATROL

According to the New Yorker, on average, someone jumps from the Golden Gate Bridge every two weeks. Since the bridge’s construction in 1937, the responsibilities of the California Highway Patrol involving bridge safety have become increasingly important.

Briggs played an instrumental role while on the California Highway Patrol. Having saved over 200 people from jumping off the bridge, he possesses first-hand insight on the topic.

First joining the California Highway Patrol in Hayward California and later relocating to the coverage of Marin County, Briggs was not originally conscious of the role he would fill on the bridge, nor the stress and anxiety connected to such a high-stakes career. According to Briggs, his most stressful encounters were with individuals on the opposite side of the pedestrian rail.

“There's a beam over the pedestrian rail we call the Chord. That's where folks stand contemplating their next step. That’s somebody's life and they're going through a very tough time. They probably have been for some time now,” Briggs said.

Through FBI negotiator training and communication classes, Briggs developed communication techniques to help distressed people on the Chord.

“I look at it like they have blinders on like a horse. I don't try to solve anything. I don't lie or anything with them. They're in a tough time; it's not going to be fixed overnight,” Briggs said. “But there is hope. It's me talking to you and I'll listen as long as necessary. So if we can get them past that crisis moment, most of the time they won't attempt [suicide] again.”

One of Briggs’ most memorable interactions was with Kevin Berthia, who he saw climbing over the rail. On the morning of March 11, 2005, Briggs and Berthia had a 92-minute conversation while Berthia stood on the chord with a news chopper hovering overhead. In a Storycorps’ interview Berthia shared how Briggs’ composure aided him through his vulnerability.

“The compassion in [Briggs’] voice allowed me to let my guard and have that conversations with him,” Berthia said.

Berthia’s conversation with Briggs inspired him to reevaluate his decision.

“My daughter is what got me to come back over. After I had spoken with Officer Briggs for that 92 minutes, I’d realized it was her birthday the next month and that I needed to be there,” Berthia said.

To this day, Berthia and Briggs remain in touch online.

While Briggs was often successful in persuading people to return over the pedestrian rail, he witnessed a number of people jump.

“To watch someone jump to their demise, that has a big effect. When I talk to officers, I tell them not to watch it because that's what's going to be in your head forever,” Briggs said. “I did it because I wanted to mark the body. I hate losing a body. That’s in your head forever. You don't get that out.”

Since Briggs’ retirement, he has become a proponent of suicide and mental health prevention, talking to communities and schools across the world.

COMMUNITY/IMPACT

“Maybe you've heard of the ripple effect suicide [has]. I don't see any ripple. I think it's a tsunami. The devastation that it does to folks, it starts with us. That spreads out to the family and friends,” Briggs said.

According to the American Addiction Center Resource, suicide is the third leading cause of death for adolescents and young adults from ages 15 to 24. With such a large portion coming from the teenage population, the effect on parents and family members can be detrimental. Families can often experience extreme feelings of anger or guilt, looking for answers to the loss of their loved one.

Briggs said that suicide bereavement is a deeply traumatic experience for families. One interaction with a mother who lost her child stood out as particularly difficult.

“I went down and talked with the mother who lived in Mill Valley. I've never seen someone turn white. Being a parent of two teenagers here, [there’s] nothing worse,” Briggs said. “I've had cancer. I've had heart surgeries. I've been in some nasty motorcycle crashes. I will tell you, straight up, something happening to your children is the worst by far.”

John experienced the tragedy first hand.

His daughter Casey was born in Poland and adopted as an infant by John and his wife, Erika. Casey attended Redwood High School and gained early admission to Bennington College.

Casey Brooks standing in front of the Golden Gate Bridge. Photo courtesy of John Brooks.

Like Casey, Berthia was also adopted. Growing up in Oakland, Berthia pushed back feelings and tried to hide his depression.

“It's hard; as a child I had to deal with feeling unwanted and still deal with that feeling to this day,” Berthia said.

John also said Casey had healthy relationships and was a socially active girl in high school, but like many teenagers, complications in her life led to household conflict.

“We had a big fight with her one night. But parents fight with their kids, right? It was a pretty nasty fight. We said things to each other that I wish we could have taken back,” John said. “The next morning I woke up and found a suicide note on her desk. All it said was, ‘The car is parked at the Golden Gate Bridge.’ And that was it.”

In light of her suicide, John said community responses worsened the situation.

“It just seemed like every institution failed us miserably. Whether it be school, church, neighbors, friends, family, you name it. The only people who really stuck by us were Casey’s friends,” John said.

According to John, the lack of community support was likely due to the stigmatization of suicide and mental health.

“They said Casey was a bad girl; only bad girls killed themselves. Casey had bad parents; bad parents produce bad girls that kill themselves. Well maybe it was drugs; maybe Casey hung around with the wrong crowd,” John said.

John specifically condemned mental health programs and preventative measures within Redwood at the time.

“I think the schools here do a spectacularly bad job of dealing with [suicide], either from a preventative standpoint or from a sort of a bereavement standpoint,” John said. “We had to fight with the principal just to give [Casey] an honorary degree.”

Briggs concurred that the stigmatization of suicide needs to be lifted through education and discussion.

“We always hear this, 'Oh, I never saw that coming.' Things were there. I'm going to tell you almost every single time there [were] some kind of signs; we just didn't put it together,” Briggs said.

John reinforced that depression and other mental illness reaches across all spans of life.

“It’s who you least expect. It's the brainy kid in Algebra. It's the football star, the homecoming queen, the successful business executive, the housewife who seems to have it all. It's the Robin Williams or [Anthony] Bourdain’s,” John said.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255

Report Abuse

If you feel that this video content violates the Adobe Terms of Use, you may report this content by filling out this quick form.

To report a copyright violation, please follow the DMCA section in the Terms of Use.