Each year about 30 people make the gut-wrenching decision to leap off the Golden Gate bridge to their deaths. To address this tragedy, a Suicide Deterrent Net is being constructed — a planned $142 million project that, after years of delays, may end up costing more than $400 million, according to contractors embroiled in a lawsuit.
The stainless steel barrier will undoubtedly catch people before they hit the frigid San Francisco Bay. But speaking as a psychiatric nurse, I believe the $400 million net proves we’re approaching mental health care in this country from the wrong end of the problem.
I have worked with countless people who struggled with their mental health, and know firsthand the heartbreak families, friends, and communities feel when loved ones are lost to suicide. While building a barrier net is invaluable to those affected, it is, in truth, a poor use of dollars. It would make far more humane and fiscal sense if we caught people long before they jumped.
Spending $400 million to save 30 people a year is a misuse of funds. The current population of the Bay Area is about 3.3 million. While money certainly can’t buy happiness, at $120 per resident, $400 million can buy an awful lot of therapeutic help and crisis intervention for those who need it — particularly given that 85% of those who choose to jump from the Golden Gate live within an hour’s drive of the bridge.
Original backing to build the Suicide Deterrent System came from multiple sources, including the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, the California Department of Transportation, Golden Gate Bridge District revenue, and the State of California Mental Health Funds, as well as donations from individuals and philanthropic foundations. However, due to unforeseen obstacles and lawsuits, costs may now reach a sum that could fall on taxpayers, including in the form of bridge toll increases.
It’s our civic duty to allocate taxpayer dollars and health care resources to deliver the best results for the greatest number of people. Focusing on mental illness prevention and early intervention makes the most sense here, especially since the net simply won’t cause overall suicide rates to decline. It can’t. Only 2% of people who die by suicide choose to do so by jumping from heights. Of the 48,183 suicides recorded in 2021 in the U.S., Golden Gate jumpers account for less than one-tenth of one percent of total suicide deaths.
Firearms, on the other hand, are used in more than half of all suicides. And for the suicidal person who chooses a gun, a $400 million net beneath a bridge is no safety net at all.
At the time of their death, 90% of people who die by suicide have a diagnosable mental health condition. Think about how $400 million worth of mental health care — including screening, therapy, medication, substance abuse treatment, and individual and family counseling — could transform lives in the Bay Area, or in any U.S. city. Imagine if, long before a person contemplates suicide, they had easy access to care for depression, substance abuse, and other psychiatric illnesses that add to suicide risk. And what if that treatment was affordable — or, better, free?
Granted, even $400 million couldn’t fix a nationwide mental health care system that is underfunded and rife with obstacles for the people who need treatment the most. However, the extreme expense of an exorbitantly priced net will only strain budgets further, funneling money away from treatment and programs that address the root cause of suicide. When someone needs help that is virtually unobtainable, the pain makes picking up a gun — or jumping from a bridge — look like the best, or only, choice.
It’s notable that the most common occupation of people who end their lives at the Golden Gate is that of student, followed by teacher.
Having worked in the school system for more than 15 years, I can attest that targeting mental health care in schools is critical to the future mental health of our country. One in ten high school students attempted suicide in 2021, according to the CDC’s Youth Risk Behavior Survey. As the U.S. faces a youth mental health crisis like never before, and with half of all psychiatric illnesses beginning by age 14, helping in a space that reaches nearly all young people has the potential to change many more lives than 30 a year.
Consider the impact if $400 million was funneled into behavioral health education and social emotional support in Bay Area schools. For example, a school nurse in every school, trained to screen, assess, and assist in care coordination and delivery, would provide teachers, students, and families with a trusted professional right within arm’s reach. You can’t say that for a corrosion-resistant net. Yet only 40% of schools nationwide have a full-time school nurse. Worse, at least 25% of schools have no nurse at all.
Suicide doesn’t happen out of the blue. Long before a person decides to jump from a bridge, they may have grappled with psychiatric illness, substance use disorders, financial turmoil, chronic health concerns, relationship problems, and loneliness, among other risk factors. Steel mesh safety nets won’t touch these issues — especially if those who suffer from them lack access to and/or the funds for care.
Suicide prevention resources should focus on social safety nets that capture entire communities of people, instead of only a few.
Sherrie Page Guyer has been a registered nurse for more than 30 years. She holds a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing from Yale University and is currently enrolled in the doctor of nursing practice program at the University of Virginia School of Nursing.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: call or text 988 or chat 988lifeline.org. For TTY users: Use your preferred relay service or dial 711 then 988.
Correction: A previous version of this essay misstated how much $400 million would be per resident of the Bay Area.
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