Dozens die each year at the Golden Gate Bridge -- when will we finally install a barrier?

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The diamond anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge is upon us. And numerous stories have been published or aired locally to commemorate the 75-year history of San Francisco's most cherished and enduring landmark.

A review of the past year's coverage about the bridge on SF Gate revealed one article about the decades-long push by suicide prevention advocates to construct a barrier that would stop people from jumping to their deaths. There have been an estimated 1,500 suicides off the span.

The article, "Golden Gate Bridge suicides up last year," elicited 161 online comments. Many were arguments opposing the building of a barrier -- a net hanging under the bridge that would cost an estimated $45 million to install.

A sampling of visitor comments:

"There are plenty of needs more important than preventing people bent on killing themselves from jumping off the bridge. If they are serious they will find a way," wrote "Neiman1."

"While I feel badly for the families of those who jumped off the bridge, I do not feel we should spend a large sum of money to destroy the aesthetic appeal of the bridge that has been visited by millions of tourists to save approximately 35 lives a year," commented "sjcres."

A number of angry comments were directed at those who jumped, suffering needless, premature deaths.

"Biggest waste of $45 million ever. Let 'em swim" wrote "macmanmk."

To public health professor Larry Wallack, these are familiar words.

For the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge, Wallack, a former U.C. Berkeley professor who now teaches at Portland State University, was part of a coalition formed to advocate for a suicide barrier after years of discussion about constructing a barrier had stalled.

Sadly, recent arguments against a barrier are the same ones he heard 15 years ago.

"The fact that people are more concerned about the beauty of the bridge or the attractiveness of the view than the relatively small costs of intervention reflects the greater public health struggle that we face," said Wallack. "This is compounded by the fact that there is a great stigma on suicide, still. For the most part, there is little sympathy for people who take their own lives."

That stigma kept the coalition from mobilizing family members of those who had committed suicide to publicly support a barrier. Many are still reluctant to talk about it.

Wallack said the lingering belief that people deterred from jumping off the bridge would find some other way of killing themselves also points to lack of understanding about suicide:

"One of the points we emphasized was that suicide is a permanent solution to what is often a temporary problem. We believed that a barrier on the bridge was something that the community could do to make sure people who were in despair had a second chance. But this was an enormously difficult argument to make, not only to the bridge district, but to the general public we were trying to activate."

The Golden Gate Bridge Suicide Coalition was successful in using the Bridge's 60th anniversary to mount a media advocacy campaign with facts and research, anticipating and rebutting every opposition argument. The coalition explained, for example, that studies showed people prevented from jumping off the bridge, by and large, did not go on to commit suicide by other means. And the winning model in a contest sponsored by U.C. Berkeley's Civil and Environmental Engineering department showed that a barrier could be designed that would not obstruct views or ruin the bridge's aesthetic appeal.

"We knew every news outlet in the region, and some from around the world, would do stories on the Golden Gate Bridge to celebrate its 60th birthday. We decided that those stories should include the dark side of the bridge. It was our chance to get the need for a barrier in front of the public and, hopefully, on the agenda of the Bridge District," said Wallack in a case study by Berkeley Media Studies Group on media advocacy lessons from the coalition's struggle for a barrier.

Those lessons were valuable. In addition to seizing the media coverage opportunity the 60th anniversary would bring, the coalition showed that choosing the right target was critical to their success. While their initial target was the general public to build community support, they subsequently made a more strategic move by calling out at a news conference members of the Golden Gate Bridge district directly. They were the governing body that could approve a barrier.

The news coverage increased the visibility and credibility of the coalition. And coalition members were equipped with data to respond to their opposition.

Local news outlets covered the Golden Gate Bridge's 60th anniversary, and included stories about the call for a barrier. The next day, the Golden Gate Bridge District engineer called the coalition to set up a meeting.

But the case study ends with a hard lesson: Change takes time. Despite the news coverage 15 years ago that highlighted the need for a suicide barrier, and subsequent reports, there is still no barrier.

The bridge district has been trying to raise the estimated $45 million needed to build a barrier that district board members approved in 2008.

"I would be asking the question: What will it take to put a barrier on the Golden Gate Bridge seeing that every other place of similar infamy has installed barriers? What will it take to prevent 35 deaths a year that we know are preventable?" said Wallack.

With support from several Bay Area congressional leaders, the district and barrier supporters are hoping that money for the barrier will come from federal transportation funding, said Paul Muller, a founding member of the Bridge Rail Foundation, an organization that has continued the work of Wallack and other advocates.

In the meantime, for the much-publicized Golden Gate Bridge anniversary celebrations planned for Memorial Day weekend, the Bridge Rail Foundation and other volunteer supporters will sponsor an event at the west end of Crissy Field featuring an exhibit of 1,158 pairs of shoes -- representing the total number of people Muller's group estimates have died by jumping off the bridge.

Said Muller: "While there'll be fireworks going on, we'll be there wearing black."

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