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Why Are British and Irish Suicide Hotspots Allowed to Exist?

Stopping people from committing suicide is a complex task, but local governments should do more to dissuade people from jumping off bridges and in front of trains.

by James Nolan
Feb 19 2015, 6:48pm

Wexford Bridge, Ireland. Photo via WIkimedia Commons

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

Wexford is a town in southeast Ireland that's connected to a suburb by a 600-meter-long bridge. At its center, the bridge rises about 20 feet above the water, which, if one jumps, isn't a very big drop. However, with icy water flowing in from the Irish Sea, it has the potential to freeze someone to death within minutes on a particularly harsh winter night.

This bridge has been Wexford's go-to suicide spot for years, and many have taken that awful plunge before invariably being found washed up at the local harbor 20 minutes down the road.

Wexford is one of Ireland's premier suicide counties, where, with a population of only 145,000, 29 killed themselves in 2011. My childhood there was littered with mentions of these jumpers, whom people had very little empathy for. "They're crazy" was the dominant consensus.

Nearly every region of the world has some place like that, some landmark to which the suicidal are magnetized. In the UK, Beachy Head is one of the most infamous, with 34 killing themselves there in 2013. The London Underground is popular, too, with 80 deaths in 2011. Londoners may also be familiar with Hornsey Lane Bridge—nicknamed "Suicide Bridge"—from which seven have jumped and died since 2010.

"Suicide Bridge" in North London. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

There are countless others around the world: Niagara Falls, the "Suicide Forest" in Japan (you may have seen the VICE documentary about that one) and San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, where roughly 1,600 have perished since it first opened in 1937. One of the main reasons people commit suicide there is that it works all to well. In comparison to only a 12 percent "success" rate for overdoses and 5 percent for wrist-cutting, the Golden Gate offers a near-perfect 99 percent, with almost every jumper exploding internally upon impact.

According to experts, a person in the grips of suicidal behavior will often idealize what's about to happen. "Suicidal people have transformation fantasies and are prone to magical thinking, like children and psychotics," Dr. Lanny Berman, the executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, told the New Yorker in 2003. "Jumpers are drawn to the Golden Gate because they believe it's a gateway to another place. They think that life will slow down in those final seconds, and then they'll hit the water cleanly, like a high diver."

Landmarks contribute to this kind of thinking: Places like Beachy Head give jumpers idyllic views of oceans, landscapes teeming with beauty that they might want to enter into. Even from Suicide Bridge one sees London in a certain type of light: faraway yet near, the Shard and Gherkin calling out over the skyline, offering more as distant beacons than they ever could up close.

Landmarks bring about what psychologist Sandra Sanger calls "a collective sense of connection with other people"—people who, like them, have suffered there as well. Killing oneself in public can also act as a "fuck you" of sorts, a hammer blow to ignorant passers-by and a world they feel has neglected them.

Take Ashley Riggitano, a fashion worker from New Jersey who jumped off the George Washington Bridge after leaving a "suicide diary" containing a list of friends who were "never there". She also named a man, hoping he'd get "what he deserves" at her funeral. A suicide expert from Leeds Metropolitan University, Gavin Fairbairn, writes, "Some people who kill themselves do so as a way of getting at others, or having a negative effect on them. We might refer to suicides of this kind as 'revenge suicides.' Perhaps the most frequent purpose that suiciders have in acting—other than to end up dead—is to hurt and punish others who they believe have offended against them in some way."

That people commit suicide is something taken for granted. Sadly, thanks to cultural figures like Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Elliott Smith, it's seen as an idea that sensitive young men, in particular, might do more than merely flirt with. I remember the attitude around Wexford was that those jumpers were doomed anyway, that if they wanted to die there was nothing we could do about it.

In actual fact, the urge to commit suicide is frequently extremely transient, and if the intended method is removed or complicated it'll most likely pass not just in the short-term, but also the long. The Prince Edward Viaduct in Toronto claimed a life every 22 days in 1997. In 2003—after which barriers were finally put up—the overall death-toll was 500. Since then? Zero. Barriers were also erected at the Clifton Suspension Bridge in Bristol, England, where the suicide rate's fallen by half.

Yet many still think that if one method's removed people will find another. Not true. In Britain, in the late 50s, oven suicides accounted for nearly half of the overall suicide total, with 2,500 Brits thought to have perished in their own kitchens. Back then, ovens were powered by coal gas, meaning that, unlit, they could emit carbon monoxide capable of poisoning humans to death in minutes. (This, of course, is how Sylvia Plath died.) But when British Gas switched to natural gas, not only did oven suicides fall to zero, but by the late 70s the overall British total had dropped by a third.

The Duke Ellington Bridge, Washington, DC (Photo by Michiel1972 via Wikimedia Commons

Consider also Washington, DC's Duke Ellington Bridge. Once a suicide magnet, people complained that putting up barriers was a waste because another bridge, the Taft, stood parallel with a similarly massive drop. However, when DC did it anyway, suicides in the city fell by almost half, the amount previously accounted for by the Ellington.

Richard Seiden, a suicide expert from the University of California, Berkeley, says, "People who attempt suicide... get fixated—and that fixation extends to whatever method they've chosen. They decide they're going to jump off a particular spot on a particular bridge... but if they discover the bridge is closed for renovations or the railing is higher than they thought, most of them don't look around for another place to do it."

Remembering failed attempts, survivors often feel regretful, like they shouldn't have done it, or like they never even tried and are now recalling a movie. Though survivors of the Golden Gate are minuscule, of the few dozen that have, two have recalled regretting their decisions to jump midair, feeling like everything in their lives could be fixed except for the fact that they'd just let go of the handrail. Essentially, their experiences changed them: neither tried to kill themselves again—and, in fact, only 10 percent of near-fatals do.

Clearly, preventions save lives, but you'd think we have no control over anything. Like I said, at Hornsey Lane Bridge, seven have died since 2010, yet the preventions that do exist there are basically invisible: two-inch-long spikes and a rotating bar that even small dogs could step over. Though residents call for more measures continuously, plans currently in front of Haringey Council are being held up over cost—previous ones to install a net were rejected at an estimated £95,000 ($147,000) plus tax—and aesthetics: Objections have come from English Heritage because the group doesn't want the Victorian architecture of the bridge tampered with.

Memorials at Beachy Head. Photo by Peter Standing via

A team at Beachy Head patrols the area in the hopes of intervening with potential suicides, but with no funding from government they rely entirely on donations and recently had to lay off four of their ten staffers. Though 34 killed themselves there in 2013, the team did successfully intervene with 364 others, meaning that—with 40 percent less staff—surely, this year, a worrying number of potentials won't be dealt with. (The entire team of ten cost £500,000 [$771,000] a year.)

And on the Tube, the biggest preventive measures are PEDs—Platform Edge Doors—which only exist at stations built during the Jubilee line extension. Installing them elsewhere is seen as too expensive.

Expense comes up frequently. Forgetting the fact that endless millions are spent on terror prevention at these same stations—something that kills far fewer people—the reality is that preventing suicide actually saves money: when someone kills themselves at a landmark, lots has to be paid for —cleanup, emergency services, counseling for witnesses and families. So though a net on Hornsey Lane Bridge would cost £95,000, each suicide in England ends up costing £1.45 million.

Obviously, we can't prevent every suicide, not when certain parts of the NHS spend 6.6 percent of their budgets on mental health when it accounts for 23 percent of their burden. But maybe there's a bit too much focus on the "Why?" rather than the "How?" when the relationship between successful suicides and long-term mental illnesses aren't as strong as we might think. Though sufferers from depression, schizophrenia and addiction are likelier to attempt suicide, they generally use more premeditated methods—like overdosing and wrist cutting—the success rates of which are, of course, fairly low. Conversely, those who try it using more lethal methods—like jumping off or into things, or guns—are less likely to have a history of mental illness. This means, essentially, that those prone to contemplating it regularly are actually less likely to successfully commit it.

Dealing with mental illness is obviously a large issue, but surely when people are dying unnecessarily every day we should start with the easiest, most effective ways of combating suicide, like putting up barriers and cameras at bridges, increasing patrols elsewhere, and installing PEDs at stations. We should generally be directing more money and attention towards something that's been criminally ignored on every level, not just by national and local governments, but in the homes of all who think there's nothing to be done.

There's plenty to be done: on Wexford Bridge, a patrol team was installed in 2012, and in its first year it intervened with 20 potentials. It was also the first year since records began that someone hasn't died there. That's 20 more people walking around who, most likely, are happy to have been given the chance.

Follow James on Twitter.

If you are feeling hopeless of suicidal, there are people you can talk to. Please call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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