San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge brings in 10 million tourists a year from around the world. But for some people, it might be the last thing they ever see.
“My son disappeared in November 2007. All the evidence showed that he was a potential jumper off the bridge,” said Dayna Whitmer of the Bridge Rail Foundation.
“We know his car was found here in the parking lot. We know he did a search of how to get to the Golden Gate Bridge that morning. We never recovered the body.”
Dayna and her family are still searching for answers since her son Matt disappeared 7 years ago. He was 20 years-old when he fell almost 250 feet to his death.
“That morning I was sleeping soundly, and I woke straight up in bed. I just knew my world was rocked and I would never be the same,” Whitmer explained.
Matt was diagnosed with schizophrenia at the age of 12 after he attempted to take his own life. His family searched tirelessly to find a child psychiatrist. After years of therapy, things were looking up.
“Matt was off his medications. But, we would have conversations. And, we were very open about his illness and psychosis when it comes up. So, he knew when to reach out and tell me when he wasn’t feeling well,” Whitmer said.
On November 15, 2007, Matt didn’t reach out to Dayna or his father, Mark.
“Our neighbor called and said the local police are trying to find us. They got Mark’s number and called him, and he called the San Francisco police. They explained the situation. And at 1:15 pm, he called me and said they think he jumped.”
Matt Whitmer’s case is not unusual. Denis Mulligan, general manager and CEO of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, claims the area is a suicide magnet.
“It’s a very beautiful setting, and for whatever reason with the passage of time, more people have come here to hurt themselves,” Mulligan explained.
The Golden Gate Bridge opened in 1937. Since that time, more than 1,500 people have died from jumping. Historically, most of the suicides have been middle-aged white men. But Mulligan says that demographic is changing, and the new profile is disturbing.
“What’s really troubling for our staff that works here is we’re seeing an increase in the number of young teenage girls,” Mulligan said.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is the third leading cause of death among 15-24 year-olds. The group accounts for 20% of all of suicide-related deaths each year. In general, suicide is on the rise in the US. More people die from taking their own lives than from car accidents.
“We need to do better,” Mulligan declared.
Last June, the Golden Gate Bridge Administration Board approved funding for a steel net that would catch people who jump. A steel post will be implemented every 50 feet and will cantilever out about 20 feet from the bridge. The post extends out horizontally, and there’s a stainless steel wire rope net that suspends through the posts with an outside wire that tightens the net.
It’s not a new idea. Ithaca College installed nets over large gorges near the campus to prevent student deaths.
“Jumping into the net won’t kill you, but it’ll hurt. Suicidal people don’t want to feel pain; they want to die,” Mulligan explained.
The Golden Gate Bridge net is set to be complete by 2019. But, is that soon enough?