Would safety fences prevent suicide attempts from Maine’s bridges?

Law enforcement and emergency responders converged on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge around noon Monday, April 1, 2013, after a man jumped off the bridge in an apparent attempt at suicide.
Mario Moretto
Law enforcement and emergency responders converged on the Penobscot Narrows Bridge around noon Monday, April 1, 2013, after a man jumped off the bridge in an apparent attempt at suicide.
By Mario Moretto, BDN Staff
Posted April 04, 2013, at 6:06 p.m.

VERONA ISLAND, Maine — A young man’s decision to jump off Penobscot Narrows Bridge on Monday raises questions about whether the state has a responsibility to prevent bridge suicides.

A 25-year-old Eddington man committed suicide by jumping off the bridge. Counting Monday’s incident, there have been at least three suicides in the bridge’s seven-year history: The Rev. Robert Carlson jumped off the bridge in 2011. A 14-year-old Stockton Springs boy jumped to his death in 2008. In 2007, a 17-year-old Orland boy either jumped or fell from the span in 2007.

Definitive data on the number of suicides at the bridge is unavailable. Tracking suicide by bridge jumping is difficult because no state office keeps a concise list of suicides by bridge jumping.

Whenever someone ends his or her life by jumping off a bridge, questions are raised about the feasibility and effectiveness of precautions, such as so-called “suicide prevention fences,” that could have interrupted the attempt.

A common argument against such preventive measures is that the suicidal person would simply turn to other means. But Greg Marley, senior manager of education support at the Maine Suicide Prevention Program, said that’s not necessarily the case.

“It’s very well-recognized that when someone is in a suicidal state of mind, they get a kind of tunnel vision, a black-and-white narrowing of choices,” he said. “It’s been shown that if you can interrupt that cycle by removing the lethal means, it buys some time. People tend to get fixated on a set of means. If you take away a gun, they don’t necessarily say, ‘Well, then I’ll go jump.’”

Marley said that some bridges are identified as “hot spots” for suicide attempts. In Maine, he said bridges of concern are the U.S. Route 1 bridge in Bath and the I-95 bridge to Portsmouth, N.H.

One structure no longer on the list is Memorial Bridge in Augusta, where after 14 suicides in 22 years, a safety fence was installed in 1983. The bridge’s proximity to Augusta Mental Health Institute was a concern for residents and the medical community, prompting construction of the 11-foot-tall safety fence.

Marley said the fence has been a complete success. Since it was erected, there have been no suicides on Memorial Bridge. (The fence was removed for approximately one year, during bridge maintenance in 2005. In 2006, the city of Augusta opted to restore the fence, at a cost of about $350,000.)

He cited a 2006 study called “Preventing Suicide By Jumping: The Effect of a Bridge Safety Fence,” which showed that in the 22 years before and after the fence was built, the number of suicides in Augusta by jumping from great heights other than Memorial Bridge stayed constant — nine in each 22-year period.

The study’s author, Andrew Pelletier, gathered data from multiple sources, including death certificates from the State Office of Vital Records, newspaper reports and State Medical Examiner records.

“The number of suicides related to jumping from other structures in Augusta remained unchanged after installation of the fence, suggesting that suicidal individuals did not seek alternative sites,” Pelletier wrote.

Patrick Paradis, a city councilor in Augusta, was a member of the Maine House of Representatives in the early ’80s, when he sponsored the bill to build a fence on Memorial Bridge.

“I wanted to send a message to those who suffer from mental illness that we care about them,” he recalled on Wednesday.

Paradis said the idea of putting safety fences on bridges with a history of suicide attempts just makes sense, especially considering the track record in Augusta. To him, it’s same as installing guardrails along the highway.

“Is it popular? No. These issues aren’t popular,” he said. “People ridicule these things and always find something to say, like that you could spend that money elsewhere. But it has saved many lives here in Augusta, and I think it was worth it.”

The Maine Department of Transportation makes safety considerations during the planning process for any new bridge construction or renovation, according to DOT spokesman Ted Talbot. After a bridge is built or repaired, towns can ask DOT to look into safety, much in the same way they would ask for a traffic study.

A crucial piece of that process, he said, is listening to public input from the communities near the bridge. If an issue is raised, be it about suicide or other safety concerns, he said the department considers its options.

“All you feel is empathy when something like this happens,” he said. “And all you can really do is pay attention to the public process and address concerns on an individual basis.”

Talbot said that barring specific concerns about suicide, DOT doesn’t generally consider fences for its bridges.

“What we try not to do, if there isn’t a particular concern, is to add additional cost to the structures, on behalf of all Maine taxpayers,” he said. “But we will always stand ready to address individual concerns.”

Talbot said that if municipalities observe a persistent danger at the bridges in their communities, they can call on DOT to look into the issue and offer possible solutions.

William Sneed, a selectman in Prospect, on the west side of the Penobscot Narrows Bridge, said he would talk with the other selectmen about whether the town should engage DOT about suicide prevention at the bridge.

“If all it takes to get something started is for the respective towns to request something, we could certainly knock together a letter to DOT,” he said Thursday. “If it’s going to stop people from killing themselves on that particular bridge, why not? Sadly, I’m afraid, it’s not going to stop people from killing themselves altogether.”

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the Maine Statewide Crisis Hotline at 888-568-1112.

Follow Mario Moretto on Twitter at @riocarmine.

CORRECTION:

An earlier version of this story cited several local officials who inaccurately stated that Monday’s suicide on Penobscot Narrows Bridge was the second in the bridge’s history. Reports indicate that at least three suicides have occurred at the bridge. Besides the two suicides referenced in the article, a 14-year-old Stockton Springs boy jumped to his death in 2008. Also, in 2007, a 17-year-old Orland boy either jumped or fell from the span in 2007. Tracking suicide by bridge jumping is difficult because no state office keeps a concise list of suicides from any particular structure.

http://bangordailynews.com/2013/04/04/news/state/would-safety-fences-prevent-suicide-attempts-from-maines-bridges/ printed on September 20, 2014