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Jon at the piano

Courtesy Photo

Jon at the piano


Safe Passage over the Canyon

Cold Spring Bridge Suicide Barrier Will Save Lives


I am a licensed therapist and the mom of two terrific Santa Barbara sons. My eldest, Jon, killed himself in a crisis moment, at the age of 23, at a perfect suicide spot along Cupertino’s Highway 49 after his call for help wasn’t heard. It was Cupertino’s first and last suicide there. Immediately, the city took responsibility, redesigned the area, and eliminated a now obvious safety problem. Santa Barbara in contrast has done nothing for 40-plus years despite 55 suicides and many dangerous rescues from the Cold Spring Canyon Bridge.

As the yet-unpublished author of a book using Jon’s life stories to teach readers how to save, sustain, and buoy life, I care about what Cold Spring Bridge represents and functions as.

At a recent court hearing, part of a lawsuit brought by the group opposed to constructing a suicide barrier, I saw how these lawyers kept cherrypicking, citing the same few flawed and dated studies. They are legalistically misinforming the people and the courts on this issue, when so many recent and robust studies indicate just the opposite of what they are claiming. With this tactic, they are interrupting, as they have for 42 years, a vital and humane public safety project—one that preserves, defends, and implements our constitutionally given right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Repeating the same error message over and over doesn’t make it true, but does over time effectively make more people buy in and believe it. Now they have stopped construction of the suicide prevention barrier pending recirculation of the Environmental Impact Report (EIR) for full disclosure and public comment. The next hearing is scheduled for August 24, presided over by Judge Thomas Anderle, in Superior Court Department 3 at 9:30 a.m.

Though there are between 100 and 200 suicide attempts per actual suicide fatality, these lawyers continue to contend that suicidal people will kill themselves anyway, no matter what we do or how much money we spend to prevent it. That is absolutely untrue, as the majority of research on suicide barriers bears out. All well-known, easily accessed, quick and certain “final exits,” such as our lovely bridge, have over the years become world famous for problems just like ours, exactly because they are “highly lethal.”

Jumping from Cold Spring Bridge is to date 100 percent fatal. Most other means easily available to people are not as lethal. When people are depressed or in crisis, they scan for places just like our bridge which they identify and remember, for potential use, in a worst-case moment, to “end it all” simply, quickly, and surely. Research shows that most bridge “jumpers” are acting impulsively in a demoralized moment. Barriers either delay or prevent jumping, which gives them essential time to calm down, recalibrate, and get help.

We all live life in waveform, with alternating troughs and highs. When we’re at a low point, that’s precisely when things will in time begin to naturally rise, if we simply stop, breathe, and ride the wave. But people in crisis often stop thinking—are impulsive and panicky and lose all perspective.

That’s why it’s essential we don’t continue to blithely and callously provide them Santa Barbara’s well-publicized, dramatic, highly visible, and very lethal, simple and easy out. If between 99 and 199 people change their minds after an attempted suicide, why wouldn’t Santa Barbarans support that? When shouldn’t we as a community err on the side of compassion and humanity by doing what we can to preserve, cherish, and protect human life?

The one boy who was 18 and jumped after he got his first “B” could have in his life alone earned enough to cover the entire bill for the barrier, not to mention the other 54 people who have jumped to their deaths from the bridge. And the error each of them made is bound to repeat, and that number will only grow and grow because we continue to default. Just-released statistics showed that the number of suicides in Santa Barbara County practically doubled last year—from 34 suicides in 2008 to 60 suicides in 2009—a huge, nonrandom increase that the bridge’s seven suicides definitely factored into.

Two days ago I spoke to a young waitress about this issue, and she sadly shared that her best friend’s boyfriend was the 50th person to commit suicide from the bridge. She promised to buy every book I wrote on the subject to give to her friends.

The judge stopped work on the barrier on July 16. Days later, another person jumped to his death, and on July 24, a local news service reported deputies rescuing an 18-year-old Santa Ynez girl from perhaps becoming number 56.

What or who do you want to make sure you protect? There is no such thing as “doing nothing.” In Australia, a man who lives across the street from a famous suicide drop has saved close to 200 people, simply by watching the bluff and, when he sees someone out near the edge, walking up and kindly asking, “Won’t you come in and share a spot of tea with my wife and I?” Most of those he spoke to walked away with him to talk over tea and never returned to that edge. A man in China, I’m told, constantly walks a bridge doing the same thing with many rescues.

People in crisis are generally ambivalent: Most just need a compassionate connection and time takes care of the rest. One of the few to survive jumping off the Golden Gate, Gregory Hines, tells how the second he saw his hands leave the railing he fervently wanted to live; and realized that everyone who jumped felt the same way but it was too late. Now, he travels the country dedicating his life to speak on behalf of suicide prevention. I personally have intervened in four imminent suicide attempts, one happening in San Francisco while I was in Santa Barbara, and am happy to report that they are all living on well since, stably, with meaning, quality of life, and financial success.

Had I the chance, I would have done the same for my son.

Believe me, you’ll be very clear on this answer if, God forbid, what happened to my son and my family happened to you. I remain, to stand in witness of what the world lost with Jon, which is why I’m writing my book. And Jon is just one person.

Bridges are constructed to get people safely across. Cold Spring Bridge was built with a safety design flaw, one that all of the fatalities there prove with their lives. About a foot separates the roadway from bridge edge—with its retaining rail just two feet and seven inches tall, and a 400-foot dropoff beyond. The bridge was not designed to accommodate pedestrians or bicyclists.

Still, they come and cross, in jeopardy whether suicidal or not, as is every driver who must avoid hitting them. The barrier will help prevent suicides in a desperate moment and protect pedestrians and bicyclists from a perilous passage, ensuring everyone’s safe passage across.

Nietsche says, “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” Bad moments are to survive, which does make us stronger but each of us will only know and appreciate how true Nietsche’s words are by living and looking back in retrospect. If we are to err, let’s err on the side of protecting people’s safe passage over dangerous chasms and life’s low points.

That view from the bridge, which the “Friends of the Bridge” have for years obsessively focused on preserving, over life itself, is over in about 10 seconds, and will still be seen through and above the barrier’s mesh. The EIR contains pictures that clearly show this, along with many research citations all proving that suicide prevention barriers save lives.

And there’s a lovely place at the west end of the bridge to safely pull off and enjoy the view for as long as you like.

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