December 15, 2004

Deathray of Sunshine

Ben Thomas writes...

The house I moved into in late 2000 was one that no longer stunk of death. That’s because when the then-leaseholder took occupancy at the beginning of the year, she and her flatmates spent their first days in the large old Sandringham villa cleaning blood off the walls of two of its five bedrooms. The previous inhabitants were drug users – injectors, gone mad and finally succumbed to a sort of violent cabin fever. Their lease was terminated after the head tenant was found, having hanged himself from the tree in the yard, just next to the driveway. By the time I moved in, the tree was a shadow of its former self, a victim of the exorcism of the suicide and its aftermath – shorn of any branch that could support the weight of a human body.*

With its lopped off limbs, it stood as testament to a pathetic attempt to “suicide proof” the house in the future, as much as it did a totem of purification for the past events. But The Economist has posited that it may be exactly such “supply-side” measures that have contributed to Britain’s falling suicide rate [30 October 2004, offline, or available to subscribers].

The UK’s rate of self-inflicted deaths in 2003 was its lowest since the Second World War and, at 84 deaths per million people, is now among the lowest in Europe. The Economist suggests this is not because the triggers of suicidal behaviours have changed – that is, the demand for suicide – but because the means of suicide have become less accessible – that is, the supply.

A number of disparate factors seem to have combined to make suicide more difficult. For example, in 1998 pharmaceutical regulations made it harder for customers to obtain large volumes of pills at one time, and manufacturers began producing medication in blister packs rather than bottles. Since this time, the number of lethal paracetamol overdoses has dropped by 34%. The proliferation of catalytic converters fitted to cars, to reduce carbon monoxide emissions, has seen the number men gassing themselves fall from 672 in 1996 to 265 in 2002. The former changes were intended to reduce waste in the healthcare system; the latter, the result of pressures to be environmentally friendly.

Controlling the supply side of the market in suicide has been attempted in New Zealand, most visibly in the erection, then removal, then reinstallation of barriers on Auckland’s Grafton Bridge. The bridge, the largest single-span concrete structure in the world at the time, was built to connect the Auckland Domain with the central city. Its foundations on the west side stand rooted in an inner city Victorian graveyard, and the roughly hewn road, lit at night by gaslight-styled lamps, looks down – from a fair distance - over the southern motorway. It’s a favoured hang-out for younger Goths, a preferred sleepout shelter for the homeless, and a notorious suicide spot.

Glass screens lined the bridge’s footpaths from 1992 until 1996, when they were removed as being unsightly and unnecessary. Since the walls were designed to make life difficult for anyone attempting to get around and over them to the outside ledges, they were also fairly hazardous for council staff to clean safely. Then, in 2002, they were back. There was no fanfare – a short piece in the Auckland City Council’s newsletter, City Scene, referred to the construction of the “safety barriers” in response to the concerns of otherwise anonymous “health professionals”. Throughout, “suicide” went unmentioned in public discussion of the screens.

It’s easy to see symbolism in these things if you look hard enough. Grafton Bridge was steeped in triumph at the time of its creation – a symbol of the power of government as a force for progress and improvement, after the private Australian firm engaged to build it became insolvent. The suicide barriers, likewise, represent the “central planning” of the suicide market, as it were.

The results were examined in a study by the Canterbury Suicide Project's Dr Anne Beautrais:

In the four years following the removal of the barriers the number of suicides increased five-fold… [The] rate of suicide by jumping in the city in question did not change but the pattern of suicides by jumping in the city changed significantly with more suicides from the bridge and fewer at other sites.
-“Effectiveness of barriers at suicide jumping sites” A L Beautrais, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry 35(5):557-62, 2001 Oct.

Curiously, the recommendation following Beautrais’s report was that the barriers be reinstalled. It’s difficult to reconcile that with the findings that they did not in fact deter any suicides, but merely redistributed them around the city, away from Grafton. Or rather, it’s easy to reconcile these recommendations with the empirical findings of the report, if the purpose of the screens was not suicide prevention, but a tourism committee initiative to get these unsightly, desperate people off our heritage-protected bridge. The only suicide I ever witnessed was a girl who jumped off the Symonds Street overpass, about two minutes down the road from Grafton Bridge.

Does this matter? Probably. If the Auckland City Council has $900,000 (the cost of reinstating the screens, according to City Scene) that it’s prepared to earmark for suicide prevention, there are almost certainly better ways to spend this money. The New Zealand Herald reports that overseas experts are queuing to investigate some of the CYFS initiatives with suicide survivors and families of suicides (two obviously high risk groups). The amount allocated to these schemes in the 2003 budget amounts to a little less than $700,000 per year, and evidence suggests they are actually helping to save lives. Nonetheless, more than this amount has been spent raising transparent walls to protect us from the mysterious thrall in which a century old viaduct is meant to hold Auckland’s inhabitants.

More from the previous report:

The bridge is a known suicide site and is located adjacent to the region’s largest hospital which includes an acute inpatient psychiatric unit… The majority of those who died by jumping from the bridge following the removal of safety barriers were young male psychiatric patients, with psychotic illnesses.
- “Effectiveness of barriers at suicide jumping sites” A L Beautrais, Australian & New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry. 35(5):557-62, 2001 Oct.

Wait… did I forget to mention that? That it’s not a gothic allegory of protest, alienation – a monolith, spanning this world and the next. That it’s just the closest bridge.

Supply. Demand.

* My buddy lived in the single room next to mine for six months before he discovered, written high up with builder’s pencil on the painted green particleboard built-in wardrobe in the corner, the words “LIFE BEGINS 9/11/1999” – November being the month of the suicide.

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