The suicide magnet for the world and for Contra Costa

 In its 75 years as one of earth’s most iconic human-made structures, the Golden Gate Bridge has also gained the macabre distinction as the world’s most popular place for people to end their lives. 

More than 1500 people have scaled the four-foot-high rail along the span’s pedestrian walkway, then plunged 220 feet, usually landing in the churning, ice cold waters of San Francisco Bay. That is, if they miss the rocks at either end of the bridge. It’s estimated that far more people have committed suicide from the bridge. However, no one will ever no for sure. Their bodies were never recovered, carried far out to sea, torn apart by sea life and the elements.

The Golden Gate Bridge is not visible to Contra Costa County residents who live on the east side of the Oakland hills. But, the bridge holds a unique place in our imaginations. It’s an important image of San Francisco, our local big cosmopolitan city, and it’s a destination for our out-of-town visitors who want to see one the wonderful sites of our eye-candy Bay Area. As with many others who have come to pursue the California dream, the bridge represents the hope of new beginnings. For some, the bridge also stands as the end of the line, metaphorically and otherwise. Here the world we know ends. What lies beyond?

“The Golden Gate Bridge is one of the most beautiful and photographed structures in the world. It is also one of the most deadly.” So says the jacket summary of a harrowing, heartbreaking and thought-provoking new book, The Final Leap, by John Bateson. 

Some of you may know Bateson as the former executive director of the Walnut Creek-based Contra Costa Crisis Center. In his career in mental health and crisis line management, he has become an internationally renowned expert on suicide. He has gained a lot of insight and experience into some of the seemingly irrational reasons that people want to end their own lives and ways medical professionals and communities can help prevent these deaths. 

Bateson has strong opinions on the harm caused by the stigma around suicide and mental illness. When we don’t talk openly about the “s-word,” or denigrate suicidal people as weak-willed personalities, we force desperately hurting people underground. 

He also has strong opinions about the need for a suicide barrier on the bridge.

Bateson has been laboring over his book, published by UC Press, for a number of years, and it’s the first book on the Golden Gate Bridge and its puzzling and disturbing role in the phenomenon of suicide. 

I’ve interviewed Bateson several times over the years, about suicide warning signs and Golden Gate Bridge deaths.  We specifically talked last year after 15-year-old Allison Bayliss of Danville  jumped to her death on May 23. She was last seen walking on the bridge that morning; her locked bike was found in the parking lot near Fort Point.  Her body was not located after a two-day search. She was one of the estimated 24 people in 2011 to kill themselves using the Golden Gate Bridge as the weapon of their demise.

In his book, Bateson talks about what makes certain scenic locations popular places for people to want to die. There is the Eiffel Tower and the Prince Edward Viaduct. The Golden Gate Bridge, the world’s longest suspension bridge, tops them all in terms of the number of deaths associated with it. Also, the Golden Gate Bridge offers one of the surest ways to end your life. Most jumpers instantly die on impact with the water.

While people come from all over the world to die at the Golden Gate Bridge, more than 80 percent of jumpers are from the Bay Area. During a 15-year period from 1994 to 2009, 21 came from Contra Costa County. Most Bay Area jumpers were from Marin and San Francisco counties; the rest were from other Bay Area counties, according to the Bridge Rail Foundation, a nonprofit dedicated to stopping suicides on the bridge.

The Golden Gate Bridge was a focus in volunteer training at the Contra Costa Crisis Center. “On our crisis lines we talk down people who intend to jump from the bridge, and in our grief counseling program we console family members and bridge jumpers,” Bateson writes.

When Bateson first started working at the crisis center, he learned an important lesson. Bateson says: “A local artists’ guild brought new paintings every month to display in the agency’s offices. As soon as they went up, staff went around and made sure that none of them included an image of the bridge. If they did, the paintings came down. We didn’t want to hurt or offend anyone whose loved one might have jumped.”

Bateson’s point is that there are a great many people in our East Bay suburbs whose lives have been devastated by the Golden Gate Bridge’s status as a suicide magnet. They have lost someone to a bridge suicide, or to suicide in general. They live with someone who is mentally ill and has at some point been suicidal. They have witnessed someone who has jumped.

Bateson recounts two high-profile stories of Contra Costa County residents affected by Golden Gate bridge jumps.

The first if of Dave Kahler, an activist in the Contra Costa mental health community. I know Dave through his work with the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

In 2003, his 32-year-old bipolar son, John Kahler, jumped off the south end of the bridge. Dave Kahler says his son was the victim of a broken mental health care system. Although John Kahler had a history of violence and needed to be institutionalized, there were no long-term residential treatment options available to him. John Kahler lived with his widowed father, who tried to regulate his son’s medications and behavior the best he could, Bateson writes.

Many in central Contra Costa may best remember John Kahler for his mistaken association with the brutal killing of 49-year-old Kathleen Aiello-Loreck. She was attacked, sexually assaulted and brutally bludgeoned while taking her regular daily walk on a popular Concord recreation trail. John Kahler lived near the trail. He jumped from the bridge the day after Aiello-Loreck’s death. The timing was suspicious to police who named him a person of interest early in their investigation. Rather than being able to mourn his son’s death, Dave Kahler had to fight to clear his son’s name. DNA eventually proved John Kahler was not involved and linked the killing to another man.

Bateson’s book also details the Coast Guard crews who have to go out onto the Bay and search for bodies and bring them in, or the California Highway Patrol officers who get called in to talk someone out of jumping. Sometimes they are successful. Sometimes they are not.

Even non-professional, innocent bystanders find themselves suddenly called upon to make life-or-death decisions following a suicide attempt.  Last April, Eric Hall of Alamo, his father and two sons found themselves in just such a situation, as I reported myself for Walnut Creek Patch.

They were sailing near the bridge’s south tower on a Sunday morning when Hall’s 14-year-old son, a Stone Valley Middle School student, heard a splash. They then saw and heard pedestrians above them on the bridge, frantically calling down and pointing to some location on the water not far from where they were.

“We saw this poor girl on port side of the boat,” Eric Hall told me. “She was just floating, partially submerged, and there was lots of blood all over her face.”

Hall told Bateson how he jumped from the helm to the back of the boat, lay down on a dive platform, snagged the body with a boat hook and held on to her by the scruff of the neck. He told his younger son to be the spotter, to keep his eye on the girl in case he lost his grip. Meanwhile, his older 15-year-old son took the helm and his father, Merle Hall, the former mayor of Walnut Creek, radioed the Coast Guard.

Eric Hall held on to the girl for what seemed to be an eternity. He was reluctant to pull her up onto the boat, because he didn’t know the extent of her injuries and worried that moving her could cause more harm. Although the girl never regained consciousness, Eric Hall said he kept talking to her, telling her that help was on the way.

The Coast Guard eventually reached the girl, a 16-year-old from Southern California on vacation with her family, and transported her to the hospital.

Eric Hall told me that his father and sons contined on the sailboat ride around the bay Sunday but in a stunned silence, puncutated by brief conversations about the girl, how she was doing, the reasons for her jump, and their sudden participation in her rescue.

“She’s the same age as my boys,” Eric Hall told me. “We were just trying to get our heads around it.”

Bateson’s book explains the bridge’s history and how its location, design and construction factor into it being a popular suicide destination.  The book is “intended to educate readers about Golden Gate Bridge suicides with the hope that more people will realize that this deplorable situation can’t continue.”

He points out how head-scratching it is that public outcry and political will to erect a suicide barrier has been slow in coming. Over the decades, public agencies in other parts of the state, nation and world have regularly responded to accident and suicide hazards on public monuments, bridges, highways and along railroad tracks by erecting signs or barriers or reconfiguring roadways. These public structures and roadways have far fewer fatalities than the Golden Gate Bridge.

Bateson says a taller railing or a well-designed net hanging underneath the bridge would solve the problem immediately and effectively.

Back in 2008, the Golden Gate Bridge District voted 14 to 1 to erect a suicide deterrent on the bridge, specifically a net, which is politically more palatable because it won’t interview with views from the bridge. But four years later, the question remains: when will the net be built?

Building the net is estimated to cost $45 million but the bridge district won’t put up any money for it. However, the bridge district has approved up to $20 million for a median separating oncoming traffic — even though only 40 people have died in traffic accidents on the bridge since 1937. The district is also upgrading the visitor information area and museum.

Bateson points out that many, including bridge district officials, don’t care about suicidal people out of the mistaken idea that these people are acting on their free will, or that if a barrier stops them from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge, they will throw themselves in front of a train or find a gun and shoot themselves.

People in the throes of suicidal thinking are not acting out of free will; usually, they are desperate to get themselves out of mental and emotional anguish that is very real. Studies about suicide, including a famous 1978 investigation by Richard Seiden, a UC Berkeley professor, showed that suicidal people usually fixate on a method. Because they aren’t thinking clearly, they often haven’t thought beyond their Plan A method, Seiden has said. He and his students tracked down 515 people who were stopped from jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge. Twenty-five years later, 94 percent of these people were still alive or had died by means other than suicide.

Until a suicide barrier is erected on the Golden Gate Bridge, it will remain an “anomaly, an icon of beauty and death,” Bateson writes. “Milions of people will continue to come from all over the world to see it, while 25 to 30 people per year will continue to jump from it.”

He continues: “Since the bridge opened, it has simultaneously inspired more dreams and ended more lives than any other structure on the planet.”

On his website, Bateson has information about purchasing the book and suggestions for taking action, including by sharing your story or writing a letter to the Golden Gate Bridge District.

2 thoughts on “The suicide magnet for the world and for Contra Costa

  1. This news item from a few days ago says a lot of things to me about suicide trends in Western culture:
    7:13PM BST 27 Mar 2012
    Swiss authorities recorded a steady rise of assisted suicides in recent years, from 43 in 1998 to 297 in 2009…The figures cover only assisted suicides by Swiss residents. Groups such as Dignitas that provide help to foreign residents keep separate records. Bernhard Sutter, the vice president of Switzerland's biggest assisted suicide group, EXIT, said the publication of the figures shows that the practice is becoming more acceptable. Sutter told The Associated Press that until recently, official Swiss statistics listed those who died by assisted suicide as “poisoned.”


  2. Johnny K. was my friend since early 80's. Was cool, fun, smart, hard-working kid.
    Loved changing car transmissions. Something slipped…got into crack…ruined
    him. Rare for a white kid to go like that. Liked to slip out of parties and get gang beat
    by black dudes…never could figure it out myself. Got news from C.C.Times…Words
    described him.Accurate For the stoic and morbid masses that didn't KNOW HIM.
    Big hole with him gone…loved that kid…enough to offer him my woman for a throw.
    Suicide is the RESULT of people not getting the help they need WHEN it could do some
    Actual good. God rest his troubled and Dear soul, miss him…We would have been cruising
    that time. That day…Use care and delicacy people…! R.A.C. Lafayette/Reno


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