In the heartbeat or two between the time that then 19-year-old Kevin Hines
hurled himself from San Francisco's famed Golden Gate Bridge and hit the water
below, he was possessed by one penetrating insight: "Oh, my God, what
have I done? I don't want to die."
Even more startling than Hines's survival is the realization as he talks of
how many among the roughly 25 people a year who jump to their deaths from the
bridge must have precisely the same thought in the approximately four seconds
it takes to drop, at a speed of 75 miles an hour, into the water 220 feet
Only a tiny minority—not more than 2 percent—survive the jump.
Contrary to what many jumpers imagine, it is not a graceful, trauma-free way
to go: the impact with the water is violent, shattering bones and dismembering
"I was falling head first. It was so fast the air pressure on my body
made it impossible to breathe," he recounted for Psychiatric
News. "By the grace of God, somehow I turned and went in feet
first. When I hit the water, I went down probably 50 feet before I started to
come back up again, all this time without breathing. I thought I was going to
pass out. When I came to the surface, I thought I was dreaming, and I said to
myself, `Oh, my God, I'm alive.'"
Something—it turned out to be a seal, he said—bore him up in
the water during the few minutes that passed before the Coast Guard picked him
up. He suffered shattered vertebrae, requiring him to wear a back brace for
the rest of his life, but Hines survived to tell his story to youth and other
groups, and to the media (including CNN and the New Yorker magazine,
Above is one architect's rendering of a suicide barrier for the Golden
Illustration courtesy of Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California
Today, that story and the stories of family and friends of the many jumpers
who did not survive, along with the critical support of psychiatrists with the
Psychiatric Foundation of Northern California (PFNC), have helped to create a
new groundswell of public, professional, and media support for construction of
a suicide barrier across the majestic landmark.
The PFNC was founded in 1993 by the Northern California Psychiatric Society
to provide public information and educational programs related to psychiatry
and mental health.
The Building and Operations Committee of the 19-member Golden Gate Bridge
Board—the administrative panel that oversees matters relating to the
bridge—recently recommended that the full board consider proposals from
PFNC and others for the construction of a barrier. The Bridge Board voted 15-1
to begin searching for outside money to pay for studies of a suicide
"It's the number-one site in the world for suicide,"
psychiatrist Mel Blaustein, M.D., president of the foundation and chair of the
PFNC's Task Force on a Suicide Barrier, told Psychiatric News. He is
also medical director of the department of psychiatry at St. Francis Hospital
in San Francisco.
"Other sites like the Eiffel Tower and the Empire State Building have
erected barriers and have virtually put an end to suicide attempts
there," Blaustein said.
Yet this is not the first effort to construct a suicide barrier along the
Golden Gate Bridge, and opposition to the idea is surprisingly strong.
Cost is one predictable consideration. PFNC Executive Director Janice
Tagart told Psychiatric News that the chief engineer with the Golden
Gate Bridge Board had estimated it would cost $2 million just for
preconstruction studies and approvals. The barrier would likely cost millions
Emotions also run high in the Bay Area about safeguarding the aesthetic
appeal of what is widely regarded as one of the world's loveliest
But Blaustein noted that suicide barriers have been successfully erected
around the Eiffel Tower and Empire State Building without diminishing
aesthetic appeal and without reducing tourism to the sites. Aesthetically
pleasing proposals for the bridge have been put forward (see illustration),
and Tagart said it may be possible to sponsor an international competition to
attract many more designs, increasing the odds that the ideal balance of
beauty and safety will be found.
Complementing both of these concerns is a pervasive attitude that people
willing to leap off of a 220-foot-high bridge will not be deterred from
suicide just because they are prevented from jumping off the Golden Gate
Bridge. Why spend millions of dollars defacing a work of art when would-be
jumpers will just find some other way to die?
Because they won't, say Hines, the family and friends of those who have
jumped, and psychiatrists working with patients who have attempted suicide.
They assert that most jumpers are not chronic suicide attempters, but act on a
momentary impulse that could be easily thwarted with a barrier
Hines, who has bipolar illness, was in the midst of a manic episode when he
walked across the bridge on September 25, 2000, crying and hearing voices
telling him he had to die. A tourist asked him to take a picture of her, and
after he snapped the picture and returned the camera, the woman turned and
walked away. "I thought, `That's it. No one cares.'"
It was then, without even bothering to step out onto the railing, that he
hurled himself over. Today, he tells people that his leap from the bridge was
an impulsive act that would not have been physically possible had a barrier
been in place.
A landmark 1978 study conducted by Richard Seiden, Ph.D., showed that
people who are stopped from jumping off the bridge rarely go on to kill
themselves in other ways. Seiden followed for an average of 26 years 515
persons who were removed from the Golden Gate Bridge before they could jump;
94 percent were either still alive or had died of natural causes.
The article appeared in the winter 1978 issue of Suicide and Life
Seiden's findings are supported by clinical experience with patients who
are brought to treatment in the city's hospitals after being talked down or
after calling for help from a hotline on the bridge.
"Most of these suicide attempts are temporary, acute reactions to
overwhelming pain," said Blaustein. "People don't often go on to
commit suicide somewhere else."
PFNC's Tagart noted that the true number of Golden Gate suicides is unknown
because many may jump unseen in the dark or the fog, and the bodies may be
swept away in the tides. Moreover, the city has stopped making the suicide
There have been a number of attempts to have a suicide barrier built on the
bridge since it opened in 1937. The recent effort to resurrect the idea,
Tagart noted, was aided by filmmaker Eric Steele, who aimed a camera at the
bridge continuously for 12 months last year, capturing the suicides that
occurred on tape. It badly surprised the bridge board, which had given its
approval to the film without knowing that the purpose was to make a record of
people killing themselves.
Tagart said that 19 bodies were recovered last year but that Steele may
have filmed as many as 24.
She and others emphasized that PFNC is working diligently with individual
members of the Golden Gate Bridge Board to foster a cooperative alliance,
rather than an atmosphere of "us against them."
Blaustein said the work of PFNC on the suicide barrier has garnered
significant respect from the larger community. "This is a nice model of
how psychiatrists can be active and work in the community while also doing
something for the profession," he said.
Today, Hines appears at board meetings to support the efforts of the PFNC.
He is finishing a college degree while also working to become an actor and
And he has the energy and enthusiasm of one who knows he has been touched
with a message to share. Is he still in treatment for bipolar depression?"
Oh, yeah," he said, with the conviction of one who is in it now
for the long haul. "That's for life."
The study, "Where Are They Now? A Follow-up Study of Suicide
Attempters From the Golden Gate Bridge," is posted online at the PFNC's
Web site at<www.pfnc.org/PFNC-GGBSeidenArticle4.pdf>.▪