Monday, July 02, 2007

Gephyrophobia

Golden Gate Bridge, View of SF Bay, March 2006



"Ken Baldwin was twenty-eight and severely depressed on the August day in 1985 when he told his wife not to expect him home till late. “I wanted to disappear,” he said. “So the Golden Gate was the spot. I’d heard that the water just sweeps you under.” On the bridge, Baldwin counted to ten and stayed frozen. He counted to ten again, then vaulted over. “I still see my hands coming off the railing,” he said. As he crossed the chord in flight, Baldwin recalls, “I instantly realized that everything in my life that I’d thought was unfixable was totally fixable—except for having just jumped.”

(From Tad Friend's "Jumpers," The New Yorker, Oct 2003).


Suicide remains an emotionally charged topic, an issue covered extensively in our UCSF medical curriculum under psychiatry and Brain, Mind, and Behavior. We spent a small group learning how to screen patients for suicide, different levels of suicide, and listened to someone's story of survival after jumping off of the Golden Gate Bridge (only 29 people out of 1,500 have ever lived to tell their stories).

Living in San Francisco and going to UCSF seems to inherently require that we constantly think and talk about Golden Gate Bridge suicides, and it has become a dark side to my unending fascination with this almost mystical structure. Admittedly, my last posting on the Sun and the Moon (the GG Bridge and Bay Bridge respectively) was intended as a prelude to this darker rumination on why people jump off of the Golden Gate Bridge and some outrage over why there is no suicide barrier erected.

A somewhat droll excerpt from "Jumpers" in the New Yorker illustrates the Bay area perceptions of the Sun and the Moon:

"There is a fatal grandeur to the [Golden Gate Bridge]....Several people have crossed the Bay Bridge to jump from the Golden Gate; there is no record of anyone traversing the Golden Gate to leap from its unlovely sister bridge. Dr. Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the leading researcher on suicide at the bridge, has written that studies reveal “a commonly held attitude that romanticizes suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in such terms as aesthetically pleasing and beautiful, while regarding a Bay Bridge suicide as tacky.”"

Interestingly, "Almost everyone in the Bay Area knows someone who has jumped, and it is perhaps not surprising that the most common fear among San Franciscans is gephyrophobia, the fear of crossing bridges."

A few weeks ago, I watched a movie called "The Bridge" during a viewing hosted by some medical school classmates. In 2004, the director received permission from the Golden Gate committee to supposedly film the natural grandeur of the GG Bridge, but his real motives were to film people jumping from the bridge to create a movie inspired by the New Yorker article. During the course of a year, 25 people were filmed during their last moments.

We see a Caucasian man, slightly overweight and wearing a white striped shirt, carefully climbing over the four-foot railing like a kid on a jungle gym. He takes great care in positioning himself on the wrong side of the fence before slipping off of the ledge like a fussy child into a swimming pool. The movements would seem almost comical, except that the man seems so ordinary, so unassuming and his movements are so chilling in their simplicity.

During the climax of the film, we see a tall, pale man with long black hair, wearing dark glasses and black leather, pacing the pedestrian walkway. Throughout the movie, we have watched this man pacing the bridge for almost two hours, spliced with interviews of his friends. When you see the tall man with his hair blowing in the wind and he walks back and forth, you can perceive the inner turmoil. Suddenly, he pounces upon the railing, stands his full height upon the top of the fence, and falls backward with his arms outstretched in utter surrender.

Like scenes of war or famine, it was a horrifying experience to see ordinary people climbing over the four foot bridge railing and plummeting into the water at 75 mph. It was real and unreal at the same time.

More recently, the SF Gate featured a seven-part series on GG Bridge suicides and why there should be an suicide barrier erected. There is an interesting website with some graphs of how many suicides have occurred and where they occur most often. Grisly, but informative.

As Friend notes, "The idea of building a barrier was first proposed in the nineteen-fifties, and it has provoked controversy ever since. “The battle over a barrier is actually a battle of ideas,” Eve Meyer, the executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention, told me. “And some of the ideas are very old, ideas about whether suicidal people are people to fear and hate.” In centuries past, suicides were buried at night at a crossroads, under piles of stones, or had stakes driven through their hearts to prevent their unquiet spirits from troubling the rest of us. In the United States today, someone takes his own life every eighteen minutes, and suicide is much more common than homicide. Still, the issue is rarely examined."

I feel that our cultural biases against suicide prevent us from understanding how to best prevent them, and until Friend mentioned it, I had forgotten about those crossroad burials mentioned in Elizabethan dramas. The prejudice and stigma continues to this day:

"In 1976, an engineer named Roger Grimes began agitating for a barrier on the Golden Gate. He walked up and down the bridge wearing a sandwich board that said “Please Care. Support a Suicide Barrier.” He gave up a few years ago, stunned that in an area as famously liberal as San Francisco, where you can always find a constituency for the view that pets should be citizens or that poison oak has a right to exist, there was so little empathy for the depressed. “People were very hostile,” Grimes told me. “They would throw soda cans at me, or yell, ‘Jump!’ ”"

"A familiar argument against a barrier is that thwarted jumpers will simply go elsewhere. In 1953, a bridge supervisor named Mervin Lewis rejected an early proposal for a barrier by saying it was preferable that suicides jump into the Bay than dive off a building “and maybe kill somebody else.” (It’s a public-safety issue.) Although this belief makes intuitive sense, it is demonstrably untrue. Dr. Seiden’s study, “Where Are They Now?,” published in 1978, followed up on five hundred and fifteen people who were prevented from attempting suicide at the bridge between 1937 and 1971. After, on average, more than twenty-six years, ninety-four per cent of the would-be suicides were either still alive or had died of natural causes. “The findings confirm previous observations that suicidal behavior is crisis-oriented and acute in nature,” Seiden concluded; if you can get a suicidal person through his crisis—Seiden put the high-risk period at ninety days—chances are extremely good that he won’t kill himself later."

The main arguments against a GG Bridge suicide barrier are 1) cost 2) aesthetics and 3) a near fatalistic public attitude towards suicide in general. However, a suicide barrier would save thousands of lives by stopping people from jumping at a time when they believe that there is no other alternative. I wanted to write a piece urging people to NOT jump, promising them that everything will be okay, but the sentiment was best expressed by Ken Baldwin at the start of this posting. At the moment that he jumped from the railing, everything that seemed hopeless and unfixable suddenly appeared correctable, and the only thing that he could not correct was the fact that he had just killed himself. These are the thoughts of a man who committed suicide and lived to tell about it.

A depressed person, however, cannot pull themselves out of the darkness. He cannot see the hills beyond his valley; he cannot cross an imaginary bridge and reach the other side. He suffers from mental gephyrophobia (fear of crossing bridges) in a manner that almost none of us can comprehend and in his darkest hour, he will seek resolution by jumping into oblivion.

If we can stop someone from jumping on a certain day and hour, we give them another chance to rethink their problems, to meet new people, and to find the reasons for living.

No matter how much I love the natural beauty of the Golden Gate Bridge, aesthetics be damned. Vanity renders us blind to the simple solution (a fence) that would keep people from dying. I hate how thinking about the Golden Gate Bridge now reminds me of watching countless people kill themselves on film, that familiar and eminently tangible red railing in every frame. The price of picturesque views like the one above is too costly for my conscience and probably my soul.

When people stop dying needlessly, the bridge's natural poetry will be pure to me again. The Golden Gate is more than a structure that takes you from point A to point B; the bridge connects two faraway shores; a visual symbol of grace, strength, and hope above all.

At the bridge's opening in 1937, Joseph Strauss, the chief engineer, read a statement in a low, trembling voice:

What Nature rent asunder long ago man has joined today."

"The class poet at Ohio University, class of ’91, Strauss also wrote an ode to mark the occasion:

As harps for the winds of heaven,
My web-like cables are spun;
I offer my span for the traffic of man,
at the gate of the setting sun."

1 comment:

pkh said...

Your post notes:


Dr. Richard Seiden, a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health and the leading researcher on suicide at the bridge, has written that studies reveal “a commonly held attitude that romanticizes suicide from the Golden Gate Bridge in such terms as aesthetically pleasing and beautiful, while regarding a Bay Bridge suicide as tacky.”"

It is too bad that Dr. Seiden spent so much time in the class room and so little time in the practical realities of life. His quote sounds romantic but reveals an idiot savant at best.

People jump from the Golden Gate not because of romance - but because of desperation. The choose the Golden Gate Bridge not because it is less tacky but because it has easy access and pedestrian walkways.

No other Bridge in the Bay Area has pedestrian walkways. No access no deaths.

I wish the Doctor and the rest of those that spend their time talking about death on the Bridge would do less talking and more action.

While they are talking and philosophizing one person leaps off the Bridge every week.

I am a native of San Francisco and I am horrified at the inability of citizens to understand that this one mile stretch of road is killing one person and devastating their families while people like the good doctor write about romance.

Open your eyes and look - this is a real tragedy and your poor scholarship, Doctor is adding to the horror. Your micharacterization of the romance is part of the problem as are you.