The Golden Gate Bridge needs no introduction.
But behind its iconic beauty and utility lies a painful truth—the bridge is one of the biggest destinations for suicide in the world. On average, 30 people or more are lost to the bridge each year, with the first death occurring mere months after its completion in 1937.
Currently, a 4-foot-high railing is the only thing preventing people from stepping over the edge. Calls for a more effective barrier date back to the 1950s and construction finally began on a suicide deterrent net in 2017, more than 80 years and almost 2,000 deaths later.
It’s expected to be completed by the end of 2023.
So why exactly did it take the net so long to get approved and built? And what will its completion mean for the families of those that were lost to the bridge?
Although construction of the net formally began in 2017, the seeds of the idea took shape in 2006 with a man named David Hull.
Hull lost his daughter Kathy to the bridge on Oct. 26, 2003. For years after her passing, he shied away from using her death as anything that he felt might tarnish her memory.
But as time passed and he began to connect with other survivors, a plan began to form.
“In the second or third year, I began attending [...] group meetings of survivors,” said Hull. “It was clear to me that I had to use her death to prevent others.”
Hull became a founding member and first president of the Bridge Rail Foundation, a key force in making the deterrent net a reality.
But Hull and the foundation first had to achieve widespread support, which faced roadblocks in the form of two main historical arguments against a barrier on the bridge.
The first is that any additional building on the bridge would ruin its design aesthetics, or prevent visitors from viewing the surrounding vistas.
To survivors like Kay James, another member of the foundation who lost her son Michael to the bridge in 2011, this line of thinking doesn’t ring true.
“What's a life worth? A view? It's just a mindset that's old-school,” James said. “You know, we have to be concerned about saving lives. Aesthetics? No. Not a good argument.”
The second argument is the belief that if a person is intent on ending their life, they will somehow find a way to get around any barrier created to stop the attempt.
Hull and James push back on this as well.
“I think the biggest problem is the myth that if someone wants to kill themselves, they'll find a way,” James said. “I don't think most people are aware of the importance of taking away lethal means of killing yourself.”
“I believe clearly that if, on her drive up from Santa Cruz, there had been a dog in pain on the side of the road or she'd had a flat tire or there'd been something that had prevented her from getting to that point in time at that place, the crisis would have passed," Hull said.
Data around these types of suicides support their opinions.
Similar deterrents installed on other landmarks around the world have drastically reduced or eliminated deaths at those sites, and data from multiple studies suggest 9 out of 10 suicide survivors will not go on to die by suicide at a later date.
But the biggest hurdle for the foundation to overcome by far, and the one that caused the most delays, came down to simply breaking through bureaucracy and finding funding. The foundation and other organizations like it had to tirelessly advocate for more than a decade to get the net’s construction in motion.
In 2008, a major milestone came when the Golden Gate Bridge District approved the addition of the net on the underside of the bridge.
In 2012, language was inserted in a federal transportation bill that specifically allowed for use of highway construction funds to create safety barriers and nets, opening up a source of funding.
And in 2014, $76 million dollars in funding was committed by the Metropolitan Transportation Commission, Caltrans, California’s Mental Health Services Act and the Golden Gate Bridge District itself.
However, since then the actual construction cost has ballooned to more than $200 million dollars, with the funding gap filled by federal and state grants, bridge tolls, and individual and foundation donations.
And now, despite all the setbacks, the net is finally due to be completed later this year, 15 years after it was first approved.
The moment is bittersweet for those behind its creation.
"Let's finish the job. Let's finish the job and save those lives," Hull said.
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call or text "988" any time day or night to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, or chat online.
Jesse Rogala can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org