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Call for suicide barriers unheeded

Still no changes to Lions Gate Bridge despite rise in jumpers

MORE than three years after a coroner's panel recommended installing suicide barriers on the Lions Gate Bridge, the Ministry of Transportation has made no moves towards that, despite a rise in deaths on the bridge.

The coroner's panel made the recommendations in 2008 after reviewing suicides of 81 people under the age of 18, including those who jumped off local bridges.

In the wake of that report, the Ministry of Transportation hired consultants to examine the idea of suicide barriers, including looking into costs, esthetics, structural issues and the unintentional redirection of suicide attempts.

That report was never made public, but the CBC, which claims to have viewed a copy, reported this week that its authors found the barriers to be the most effective means of deterrence.

Instead of installing the structures, however, the province opted to put six crisis phones on the bridge in bright yellow boxes. Anyone who picks up a phone can be connected either to a crisis centre or a general assistance line to report emergencies. The intention of the crisis phones is to prevent people from jumping off the bridge by providing a direct link to crisis counselors.

Ian Ross, executive director of B.C.'s Crisis Intervention and Suicide Prevention Centre, said installing the phones is a good first step. "Emotional support available 24/7 can be the difference between life and death," he said.

But in the years since the phones went in, suicides by people who jumped off the Lions Gate Bridge actually went up.

In 2010, eight people jumped to their deaths from the bridge - the highest number in the past 20 years. Three people committed suicide by jumping off the bridge last year.

In the past six years, 88 people have died after jumping off bridges in the Lower Mainland, including five who jumped from the Ironworkers Memorial Second Narrows Crossing.

The coroner's panel recommended retrofitting five Lower Mainland bridges with suicide barriers including the Lions Gate, Second Narrows, Burrard Street, Granville Street and Pattullo bridges. Collectively, those bridges were the scenes of 50 per cent of suicide deaths by jumping between 1991 and 2007.

But by far the majority of those - 26 in the past six years - chose the Lions Gate.

Advocates for the mentally ill and those who work with people in crisis say by not putting up the suicide barriers, the province is missing an opportunity to prevent further deaths.

"We know a lot of cases where people have jumped off," said Herschel Hardin, president of the North Shore Schizophrenia Society.

"Anything that discourages or prevents the physical act of suicide is a good thing."

Ross also advocates barriers, which have been successfully used in other jurisdictions.

"Barriers work," he said. "It means restriction. And if you restrict means of suicide, suicide goes down."

The Ministry of Transportation did not respond to questions about whether the suicide barriers are still being considered or what the ministry's own report recommended by press time.

The issue of bridge jumping rose in profile in 2008 when a distraught woman on the Ironworkers bridge brought Canada Day traffic to a standstill for six hours.

jseyd@nsnews.com

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