All That Separates You: Suicide Barriers On the Hoan Bridge
The Hoan Bridge is undeniably an iconic Milwaukee landmark. While the yellow bridge adds to the picturesque skyline, and is an essential vein into the downtown, it also serves as a destination for suicide. Although this information could not be formally verified, according to an article published on May 25, 2016, by Milwaukee News Station, WISN 12, over the last 15 years, more than 30 people jumped from the Hoan Bridge. All that separated them from the 120-foot drop into freezing cold, choppy, and murky water was a concrete barrier, less than 4 feet tall.
Suicide barriers adorn buildings, parking structures, bridges, freeway overpasses, and other tall structures all over the world. Today, the Hoan Bridge still stands without any form of suicide barrier protecting it. Barbara Moser MD, chair of Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, said that many sites in European countries include barriers from the very beginning of the construction process and that it isn’t a question whether or not to have them installed.
“Barriers don’t detract from the bridge, they look good,” Moser said. “Barriers go up, and suicide goes down. They help. The barriers have shown to be effective if one is in emotional crisis.”
Barriers have several different forms, including metal nets, or fences and walls made out of glass, concrete, or metal. Oftentimes, fence or wall barriers will curve inwards as to deter people from climbing over them. These types of barriers can be seen on destinations all over the world, like the Empire State Building in New York City.
A common concern when installing barriers is if it will detract from the image or scenic view from a sight. Under-hanging metal nets and glass barriers are solutions to help prevent suicide, while not detracting from or obstructing any views.
The Bridge Rail Foundation, a non-profit organization based in Sausalito, CA, is dedicated to stopping suicide on the Golden Gate Bridge. According to the Bridge Rail Foundation’s Net Fact Sheet, a stainless steel net will finally be installed the full length of the Golden Gate Bridge. The net will hang 20 feet below the Bridge’s railings, on both its east and west sides, with the entire project taking three to four years to complete. The Bride Rail Foundation’s website states that the Golden Gate Bridge is the top suicide site in the world, where to date, there have been almost 1,700 suicide deaths.
The Golden Gate Bridge Highway & Transportation District, stated in an April 13, 2017 press release that in mid-2018, the installation of the net will begin, with an expected completion date in 2021.
Less effective, yet more cost efficient suicide prevention methods include call boxes or simple signage listing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline or local resources for help, placed near and on the destinations.
Kathryn Posthuma-Bain, a local Milwaukee mental health professional and advocate, started a petition to have suicide barriers installed on the Hoan Bridge in 2016.
“Signs help, but barriers are far more effective,” Posthuma-Bain said. “The physical intervention of a barrier, an interruption, will stop them and make them think. Suicide is impulsive, and a plan is usually created with very short notice. They are in a state of despair and not logical. If their attempt is interrupted, the rate of recurrence lessens.”
The Hoan Bridge was in the spotlight in 2010 when Milwaukee Sheriff David A. Clarke Jr. wrote a letter to the Wisconsin Department of Transportation, asking for barriers to be installed along the Hoan Bridge. The DOT denied Clarke’s initial request. The reason the request was denied was not clear, but pointed mostly towards the appearance of the bridge and lack of funding. Moser also met with the DOT to discuss possible signage options on the bridge, to which they were denied as well.
“We were basically told there was no money for barriers at all,” Moser said. “Each year there are roughly 1-3 deaths, and a few attempts that are known of, but then how many more are unknown? People can get washed out to Lake Michigan, and bodies can become totally unrecoverable.”
Moser, said that to date, there have been around 30 known suicides off the Hoan; however, it’s hard to get accurate data because of a lack of information and suicide records.
According to a Milwaukee County Sheriff’s Office News Release published on March 5, 2018, the most recent jumping death from the Hoan Bridge occurred on January 8, 2018. Sheriff’s deputies went to the area below the bridge to search, and were joined by the Milwaukee Fire Department and Milwaukee Police Department Dive Team, but they did not recover a body. The victim’s body was recovered nearly two months later from the Milwaukee River, on March 5, by the Milwaukee Police and Fire Departments.
(Underneath a portion of the interstate connected to the Hoan Bridge. Listen to the audio of vehicles rolling past : this may be similar to what jumpers might have heard in their moments before they jumped.)
Ideally, Posthuma-Bain envisions both fence and sign barriers to be erected on the Hoan Bridge, encouraging those in crisis to reach out for help. Posthuma-Bain cited another Wisconsin Bridge, the Leo Frigo Bridge in Green Bay, Wisconsin, which has signs listing the phone number of a suicide hotline.
As of May 14, 2018, Posthuma-Bain’s petition has collected 711 signatures. Posthuma-Bain plans to gather even more signatures on her petition through the use social media, allowing her to reach a broader audience. Having worked with the Mental Health America Chapter of Milwaukee and the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s Out of the Darkness Community Walks, the next step for Posthuma-Bain’s petition will be to go to Wisconsin lawmakers.
“Mental health has always been taboo, with a stigma and lack of understanding,” Posthuma-Bain said. “Education is the biggest way to fight against nothing being done.”
Dr. Bob Dubois, volunteer and leader with Prevent Suicide Greater Milwaukee, is a psychology professor for Waukesha County Technical College and specializes in QPR training. Standing for question, persuade, and refer, QPR training aims to reduce suicidal behaviors and save lives by providing innovative, practical and proven suicide prevention training.
“When people are in pain and considering suicide, the first thing that comes to their mind is how they might do it,” Dubois said. “Some suicide destinations can be very easy to access. If there are no barriers or strategies to help people when they get to that particular place, they are more likely to follow through. Barriers work, and if you value life, you would want to have these barriers.”
Dubois shared that oftentimes we are more willing to install suicide barriers in places where there are high volumes of people, like the Empire State Building or Golden Gate Bridge, for example. Additionally, Dubois cites the Marquette Interchange in the center of downtown Milwaukee, which has fence-like barriers which curve inwards towards the top, on its overpasses.
“For some reason, the Hoan Bridge has been immune,” Dubois said. “We ought to have a barrier on that bridge. It is a known destination, and it would not take much effort to install.”
(Time-lapse driving over the Hoan at night, and a view of the Milwaukee skyline.)
Dubois suggests that private donations and other outside support could help to erect barriers or signage on the Hoan Bridge.
“Most people would prefer that suicide is taboo, and don’t want to talk about it,” Dubois said. “Their initial gut reaction is basically denial. They don’t really want to have to deal with it, and will use other excuses to ignore that suicide is a big problem. We do not want to have to come face-to-face to what it means that suicide is such a prevalent experience in our culture.”
Dubois expressed the importance for our society to become more enlightened, educated, compassionate, and equipped when discussing suicide.
“It is not easy to awaken people,” Dubois said. “It is a grave way to be enlightened. To have to experience the loss of someone.”
Mount Mary University freshman, Oliva Hickman, majoring in International Studies, has experienced this loss firsthand when her brother passed away from suicide on March, 2, 2016.
“Although I know he is no longer emotionally suffering, my family, as a result, had to come really close together to deal with his death that blindsided us,” Hickman said. “It is a void that will never be filled.”
When contemplating on how we could move forward as a community and societal whole, Dubois said we need to put this issue front and center.
“Yet there is stigma, and we may not be ready to talk about it,” DuBois said. “We need to make it ok to be valuable, open, and authentic, and to recognize that the life we often see portrayed to the public, or on social media, is not necessarily someone’s real life. Recognize that this problem exists instead of denying it, and empathize. It is not easy to be honest with people about your own vulnerability and mental health. We need to have the courage to reach out to those who have been affected by suicide.”
To sign Posthuma-Bain’s petition for adding suicide barriers on the Hoan Bridge, click here.