Building Barriers to Prevent Suicide

Building Barriers to Prevent Suicide

Can we prevent suicide by reducing access to lethal methods? Dr. David Gunnell from the University of Bristol has demonstrated that the answer is "yes."

He investigated the impact of placing preventive barriers on the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol, England—a site from which suicide by jumping commonly occurred and was typically lethal.

His study covered 10 years, five before the barriers were constructed and five after. He found that during the five years before the barriers were put in place, those who jumped tended to be less likely to have engaged in prior self-harm and less likely to have received psychiatric services, suggesting that these acts were more impulsive.

In the five years after the construction the number of deaths by jumping was cut in half and most of the reduction was seen in males. After the barriers were put in place, the few who died tended to have more chronic problems and their deaths were not seen as impulsive acts. There was no increase of deaths by jumping at other bridges in the area during the five years after the barriers were installed. Interviews with the bridge staff indicated that although they initially opposed the barriers and thought they wouldn't be effective, they found that it helped them to "buy time" and intervene. They noted that a camera for bridge staff to monitor activity on the bridge was important.

For architectural reasons, the barriers were not placed on the buttress walls at either end of the bridge. In view of the continued, although much reduced, suicides at this site, further work to improve the safety of the site is underway. Dr. Gunnell has gone on to study other effects of limiting access to lethal means.  While not a cure for suicide, this study shows that limiting bridge access can reduce suicide by “buying time” for assistance through a suicide crisis.

Published article from this study:

  • Bennewith O., Nowers M. & Gunnell, D. (2011). Suicidal behaviour and suicide from the Clifton Suspension Bridge, Bristol and surrounding area in the UK: 1994-2003. Eur J Public Health, 21(2): 204-208.
  • Bennewith O., Nowers M. & Gunnell, D. (2007). Effect of barriers on the Clifton suspension bridge, England, on local patterns of suicide: implications for prevention. British Journal of Psychiatry, 190: 266-267.