Public perception of Golden Gate Bridge suicides shifting as barrier funding looms 

click to enlarge State Sen. Mark Leno, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg stand in front of the Golden Gate Bridge on Thursday in support of a plan to put a suicide prevention net on the bridge. Leno and Steinberg helped secure $7 million for the net from a state fund for mental health needs. - COURTESY OF CALIFORNIA SENATE
  • Courtesy of California Senate
  • State Sen. Mark Leno, left, and Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg stand in front of the Golden Gate Bridge on Thursday in support of a plan to put a suicide prevention net on the bridge. Leno and Steinberg helped secure $7 million for the net from a state fund for mental health needs.

Golden Gate Bridge directors can approve a $76 million funding plan today that would add a significant new feature to the iconic span -- which happens to be the world's most popular suicide destination. If they do, it will lay to rest a decadeslong battle to overcome what extensive research has deemed a myth: that barriers do not deter suicidal people from taking their lives in another capacity.

"Instant regret -- that is what I felt the millisecond after I jumped off the bridge," survivor Kevin Hines, 33, said Thursday at the bridge, urging the transit district to sign off on the funds.

On numerous occasions, Hines said, people have asked him if he would have tried another method had the barrier existed.

"Most other buildings and monuments had barriers," he explained. "None have been as easily accessible as the Golden Gate Bridge. Therefore, I loudly proclaim, 'No, I would not have gone elsewhere.'"

Mental illness experts and state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and Sen. Mark Leno, who helped secure $7 million in funds for the barrier from Proposition 63, the California Mental Health Services Act, all referenced research backing Hines' account.

Among the studies is a UC Berkeley report that traced the lives of 515 people who were stopped from jumping and found that 25 years later, 94 percent were still alive or had died from natural causes.

In his book "The Final Leap: Suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge," John Bateson, 62, highlights three arguments against bridge barriers: their high cost, the belief that aesthetics will be compromised, and the misconception that suicidal people will resort to any means possible to end their lives.

All three were factors in the Golden Gate Bridge barrier decision. When directors in 2008 decided to fund studies and a design, they also passed a policy that toll money would not be used to build the barrier. That is the very policy they are being asked to overturn today.

Under the funding plan, the district would contribute $20 million from its reserves to match $49 million in federal funding and $7 million from the mental health care act.

The aesthetics issue was addressed in the design process; the net will only be visible from the sidewalk next to the bridge towers and at vista points on either end.

Steinberg authored Prop. 63, which passed in 2004 and has brought more than $163 million to The City's mental health system. He said Thursday that the barrier will likely become Prop. 63's most publicly recognizable benefit.

"It will tell the taxpayers and people of California that the Mental Health Services Act is at work on their behalf," said Steinberg, adding that it was the most important legislation he had worked on in his career.

Psychiatrist Dr. David Pating, vice chair of the Mental Health Services Oversight and Accountability Commission that administers money from the act, said overcoming the myth took a long time because perceptions of people with mental illnesses are skewed.

"People who believed in the myth thought suicidal people were different," he said. "It's not a them vs. us story; it's an all of us story."

About The Author

Jessica Kwong

Jessica Kwong

Bio:
Jessica Kwong covers transportation, housing, and ethnic communities, among other topics, for the San Francisco Examiner. She covered City Hall as a fellow for the San Francisco Chronicle, night cops and courts for the San Antonio Express-News, general news for Spanish-language newspapers La Opinión and El Mensajero,... more
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