Golden Gate Bridge Suicides, Then and Now

The people who jumped to their death from the Golden Gate Bridge over the past decade are significantly older than their counterparts of a generation ago.
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The people who jumped to their death from the Golden Gate Bridge over the past decade are significantly older than their counterparts of a generation ago.

America’s population is growing older and more ethnically diverse. New research suggests this demographic shift also applies to a specific, sad subset: People who commit suicide by jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge.

A study recently published in the journal Psychological Reports compared two sets of individuals who ended their lives in the cold water beneath the iconic structure: Those who jumped to their deaths between 1999 and 2009, and those who did so in 1976 and 1977. Cynthia Yeh of Touro University and David Lester of The Richard Stockton College of New Jersey found some striking differences between the decades.

“Recent suicides from the bridge were older, more often male, and more often nonwhite,” they report, “suggesting that suicide from the bridge may be appealing to a broader segment of the population in the current century than in the 1970s.”

According to data from the Marin County Coroner’s Office, 224 people jumped to their deaths from the bridge in the 11 years ending in 2009. They represent nearly 40 percent of all the suicides in Marin County, California during that period.

Comparing those deaths to the 47 bridge suicides reported in 1976 and 1977, the researchers found the mean age of the jumpers has risen significantly: from 34.9 to 41.9 years. In addition, the ethnic makeup has changed substantially: In the earlier study, everyone who jumped to their death was white; in the new sample, 18.8 percent were nonwhite.

In 1976-77, the suicide victims were almost evenly divided between men and women, with 55.3 percent being male. In the 1999-2009 time period, nearly three-quarters — 73.2 percent — were men. This brings the bridge more in line with national statistics: According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, there are four male suicides for every female.

The foundation reports that in 2007 (the latest available data), there were 34,598 suicide deaths in the U.S., or approximately 90 per day. Yeh and Lester report there are about 20 suicides per year off the Golden Gate Bridge, or roughly one every two weeks.

Demographics and suicides are also the topic of another recently published paper. Writing in the September/October issue of the journal Public Health Reports, sociologists Ellen Idler of Emory University and Julie Phillips of Rutgers University note an unprecedented recent rise in the suicide rate among middle-aged Americans (ages 40 to 59).

They report baby boomers have broken the traditional pattern, in which suicide rates of people in their 40s and 50s is relatively low. Idler and Philips note this increase is particularly dramatic for middle-aged people who are unmarried and lacking a college degree.

In contrast, the foundation reports the youth suicide rate has been steadily decreasing since the mid-1990s. That combination would explain why the mean age of the bridge jumpers is rising. It also suggests suicide-prevention campaigns should devote more resources and attention to the growing segment of the population that is struggling through midlife.