Wexford is a town in southeast Ireland that's connected to a suburb by a 600-metre-long bridge. At its centre, the bridge rises about six metres 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 harbour 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. Growing up there, my childhood was littered with mentions of these jumpers, whom people had very little empathy for. "They're crazy" was the dominant consensus. I, however, became intrigued by why so many of them were drawn to that same spot.
Growing older, I learnt that everywhere had some place like that: some landmark to which people were magnetised to commit their final act. 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.
There are countless others around the world, like Niagara Falls, 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. One of the main reasons people commit suicide there is effectiveness. With only a 12 percent success rate for overdosing and 5 percent for wrist cutting, the Golden Gate offers a near-perfect 99 percent, with almost every jumper exploding internally upon impact, their organs beaten around them like marbles in a sack.
And though the Tube, for instance, has a lower success rate (40 percent) jumping off or into things is generally more effective than most other methods.
A person in the grips of suicidal behaviour will idealise what's about to happen – that they'll garner a lot of attention, or that cutting their wrists will be painless, or that jumping off a building will be graceful. Landmarks contribute to their 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 beacons than they ever could up close. So with beating hearts and zapping minds, a romantic image is conjured – one that seems preferable to the ugliness they perceive themselves as occupying.
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, a hammer blow to ignorant passers-by and a world they feel has neglected them.
That people commit suicide is something taken for granted. Sadly, thanks to cultural figures like Kurt Cobain, Ian Curtis and Elliott Smith, it's come to represent almost a rite of passage for sensitive young men. Growing up, 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 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 – when 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, 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 its overall total, with 2,500 people 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 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 0, but – by the late 70s – the overall British total had dropped by a third.
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, 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, 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 recall 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 had 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 €128,000 plus VAT – and aesthetics: objections have come from English Heritage because they don't want the Victorian architecture of the bridge tampered with.
A team also exists at Beachy Head to patrol the area and intervene with potential suicides, but with no funding from government it relies entirely on donations and recently had to make four of their 10 staff redundant. 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 10 costs €677,000 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 much less 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; counselling for witnesses, families – plus tax not paid into the system with the person dead. So though a net on Hornsey Lane Bridge would cost €128,000 plus VAT, each suicide in England ends up costing €1.95 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 longterm mental illnesses (the traditional Why?) 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 – whose success rates are, of course, lower. Conversely, those who try it using more lethal methods – like jumping off or into things, or guns – have much less history of mental illnesses than any other group. This means, essentially, that those prone to contemplating it regularly are actually less likely to successfully commit it.
Dealing with mental illness is obviously welcome no matter what, but surely when people are dying unnecessarily every day we should start with the easiest, most effective ways of combatting it, like putting up barriers and cameras at bridges, increasing patrols elsewhere and installing PEDs at stations: just generally 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.