Temporary suicide barriers for Vista Bridge won’t go up until next month, and yesterday the interim was marked by tragedy when a man jumped to his death. It was the fourth suicide from the bridge this year. Commissioner Steve Novick and others are asking for volunteers to receive crisis training, then walk the bridge in two-person teams, 24 hours a day, until the barriers are in place.
That certainly sounds like a compassionate response. It’s self-evident that person-to-person intervention is always superior to mechanical obstruction. But it is precisely this human advantage that shows the lack of compassion in the city’s approach.
When the barriers go up, the volunteers go home.
Where does this leave the suicidal person on the bridge? He is protected against one method of suicide in one location — and it’s possible that for some people, that will be enough. But for many, the barriers will merely inspire consideration of other means and places. Turned away without help, they will go elsewhere, and they will be just as dead as if they jumped from the Vista Bridge.
So, who do the barriers really protect? Non-suicidal persons who don’t want to be bothered by another person’s pain. The barriers may not help people in crisis, but by God they will save the morning commute.
* What should you do to help a friend or loved one in crisis? Our advice is based on real-life experience, not textbooks. Read it NOW — don’t wait for an emergency. (Scroll down to “1. Suicide”)
* If you are considering suicide, call the Multnomah County Crisis Line at 503-988-4888, 24/7. Other counties are listed here.
City leaders and mental health specialists hope to place trained crisis volunteers on Southwest Portland’s Vista Bridge until temporary suicide barriers can be installed next month, but they said that plan may take up to two weeks to put in place.
Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick reached out to mental health agencies after a middle-aged man jumped off the bridge to his death Tuesday morning, just a week after Novick announced that barriers would soon be erected.
“This is basically our nightmare: What if somebody jumps before we have had a chance to put up a barrier?” said Diane Dulken, a Portland Bureau of Transportation spokeswoman.
It was the fourth suicide of the year on what’s become known as “Suicide Bridge,” more deaths than in any year during the past decade. Novick asked local mental health experts about the feasibility of posting volunteers on the bridge.
“That is the only thing I can think of to do,” he said.
Mental health leaders and a community group called Friends of Vista Bridge put out a call for community volunteers willing to undergo crisis training.
Ken Kahn, of Friends of Vista Bridge, hopes to have 2-person teams walk the bridge around the clock until the barriers go up sometime next month.
Kahn, a criminal defense lawyer whose office is below the bridge, acknowledged that human presence may not be enough to stop a suicide, but it might help.
“Here is what we know: When people are in crisis, they are not thinking clearly,” he said. “If you just put a pause in their crisis, it stops a suicide. We know that a barrier will do that, but we also know human intervention is enough to prevent suicide. It will save lives.”
Sgt. Pete Simpson said the Portland Police Bureau doesn’t have resources to monitor the bridge, but police patrols in the area have increased.”There’s been extra attention given to the bridge by the officers working in that area,” he said. “That’s definitely a change from the past.”
Novick last week approved an emergency request from the Bureau of Transportation to install the temporary suicide barriers. The request for an emergency construction contract is for $236,000, according to the request from David O’Longaigh, the bureau’s supervising bridge engineer.
The black screens, constructed by Tapani Inc., will be nine feet high and can be removed without permanent impact on the bridge, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. The money will come from PBOT through contingency funds, Novick said. Production on the barrier is already underway, Novick said, but it will take a couple of weeks to complete fabrication and another couple of weeks to install.Dulken said the order for the temporary barrier on the Portland bridge is already on a fast track, but she said officials will check to see if the process can be stepped up.
“We have been moving as fast as possible,” she said.