Erecting a barrier on a landmark Toronto bridge successfully stopped people from ending their lives at the infamous site, but rates of suicide-by-jumping in Canada’s largest city have remained unchanged, a study has found.
What the findings underscore, say researchers, is the need for better suicide-prevention strategies, including increased awareness of the wide range of mental health services available to people unable to cope with their lives.
The study looked at the number of annual suicides at the Bloor Street Viaduct — a lofty 485-metre overpass in midtown Toronto that spans a multi-lane highway, ravine and another major roadway — in the years before and after the barrier was erected.
The bridge, built in 1918, had became a “notorious suicide magnet,” said lead author Dr. Mark Sinyor, chief resident at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto.
“In recent years, it was the second most frequented bridge for suicides next to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.”
More than 1,200 people have died plunging from the Golden Gate Bridge since its completion in 1937. Up until 2003, when the “Luminous Veil” barrier was erected on the Bloor Viaduct, more than 400 people had leaped to their deaths.
Using coroner’s reports, Sinyor found that from 1993 to 2001, there were 10 suicides a year on average at the Canadian bridge. After 2003, no suicides occurred at the site up to 2007, the last year records were examined for the study.
However, the annual rate of suicides-by-jumping in the city didn’t drop after the barrier went up. An average of 10 people ended their lives by dropping off other bridges or buildings.
Not only was that finding unfortunate, but it was also somewhat surprising, he said, since overall suicide rates in Ontario and Toronto have been dropping, as have suicides by other means. “The only thing that stayed the same were suicides by jumping.”
Yet the good news is that the suicide-prevention strategy at the Bloor Viaduct was 100 per cent successful, said Sinyor, whose study is published in this week’s issue of the British Medical Journal. “It sent a message to people that we care about suicide prevention.”
Co-author Dr. Anthony Levitt, Sunnybrook’s chief of psychiatry, said the study illustrates that physical barriers alone are not sufficient in deterring people who intend to commit suicide by jumping.
“Optimal suicide-prevention programs involve comprehensive strategies to provide education, combat stigma and improve accessibility of services to individuals contemplating suicide,” he said.
Dr. Jennifer Brasch, medical director of the psychiatric emergency service at St. Joseph’s Healthcare in Hamilton, said the research is important because people in the field continue to look for new ways to prevent suicide.
But Brasch, who was not involved in the study, said there is no one intervention that will stop people dying by their own hand.
“It’s an enormously complex human behaviour and a suicide death represents sort of a confluence of a number of factors that come together,” she said Tuesday from Hamilton.
“Someone who is depressed or profoundly anxious does become quite withdrawn and may have a disordered perspective that there is nobody out there to help them and nobody who cares and nobody who wants to listen.”
But Brasch said there are many health professionals and programs that can help.
“I would try to say first of all to them to reflect that they have not always felt this way and to encourage them very much to seek assistance through a crisis line or an emergency service or from their family doctor or someone who cares about them.”
“Seek help and find a reason to go on living,” said Brasch, who has a website of the same name that includes stories of people who attempted suicide and then subsequently chose to live.
Sinyor said people who are suicidal usually feel hopeless and believe nothing in their lives will ever change.
“But that’s not so. We know that the conditions that cause people to think about suicide — things like depression, anxiety, psychosis, addiction — they’re treatable,” he said.
“And so the message we really need to send to people thinking about suicide is: ‘You’re not alone. There are people out there who care and want to help. There are good treatments available. There is hope.”’
Centre for Suicide Prevention: www.suicideinfo.ca/csp/go.aspx?tabid40
Reasons to go on Living: www.thereasons.ca