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Bridge barriers effective in preventing suicides

My View: Deterrent would give person time to think, help save lives


The record number of suicides from the Vista Avenue Bridge in Portland has brought Oregon’s high suicide rate to the forefront.

The Vista Bridge (technically the Vista Avenue Viaduct) is a beautiful structure that has a well-deserved place on the National Register of Historic Places. An effort has been launched to fund an architecturally pleasing barrier for the bridge using a combination of private and government funds. That process could take three to five years.

In the meantime, Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick has taken emergency action to place temporary barriers on the bridge by late this month. It’s a move that will prevent suicides from that span while waiting for a long-term solution to be put in place.

Why should this be pursued? Multiple studies show that in the majority of cases when people meet a barrier on a bridge, they do not go to another bridge to make a suicide attempt.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention says that it’s a misconception that those thwarted from a suicide attempt merely go on to other places to take their lives.

We at Lines for Life agree with the foundation’s statement that “Barriers work by giving individuals and those who care for them something they desperately need — time: time to change their minds, time for someone to intervene, and time to seek help.”

Suicide is preventable. Our focus should be on the questions of “Why so many suicides?” and “How can we prevent them?” Rather than the means, we need to address the ways to prevent suicide.

As a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, Lines for Life received around 16,000 calls in 2012. The crisis intervention counselors were able to de-escalate 95 percent of those calls. That means emergency services were not activated, and the caller agreed to a safety plan including mental health treatment.

It takes multiple factors for a person to choose suicide, but underlying those factors is often a chronic or temporary mental health issue. Most people don’t want to die, they just want to get out of the pain and distress they’re in. Their thinking has become isolated, and they need help to reconnect with their reasons for living.

Unfortunately, there is a great deal of stigma surrounding mental illness. Individuals and their families tend to feel ashamed about the topic, so many times it doesn’t get openly discussed. When people avoid the topic they allow the mental wounds to fester unabated.

Open dialogue is the key to encouraging those with thoughts of suicide to seek help. It should be considered no more shameful than having diabetes or heart disease.

Lines for Life’s crisis intervention counselors often hear from callers speaking about loss and loneliness. Quite often it is a loss that has precipitated a crisis. The state’s 2012 report “Suicides in Oregon: Trends and Risk Factors,” indicated that roughly a third of the people suffered a crisis within the last two weeks prior to the suicide. They also found that nearly 30 percent indicated an intimate partner problem at the time of the suicide incident.

The significance is that the problems are temporary and typically short-term in nature, as opposed to “chronic” mental health problems, which are longer term, if not lifelong. It is these short-term crises where a barrier is most likely to be effective for protecting persons from suicide attempts.

Whatever the means considered for suicide, it often can be prevented by engaging the person involved in a candid conversation and taking steps to keep them safe.

The Lines for Life crisis intervention counselors are available 24 hours a day for those with suicidal thoughts or friends and family members concerned about them. Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255).

Controversy is difficult to avoid. Consensus is hard to achieve. But as the robust dialogue about the barriers on the iconic Vista Bridge ensues, we must never lose sight of the value of saving human lives.

Judy Cushing is the chief executive officer of Oregon Partnership/Lines for Life, a nonprofit organization that works to prevent substance abuse and suicide. More information can be found at www.LinesForLife.org.