St. Paul's suicide hotspot will get prevention barriers at last

The High Bridge might become a suicide risk, the St. Paul Daily Globe warned as soon as it opened in 1887. This year, MnDOT will finally do something about it.

The High Bridge might become a suicide risk, the St. Paul Daily Globe warned as soon as it opened in 1887. This year, MnDOT will finally do something about it. MnDOT

St. Paul jogger Dana Bogema once saw a man disappear over the side of the High Bridge in St. Paul.

She was approaching the base when she noticed him standing at the top. Bogema looked away for a second. He climbed over.

Afterward, Bogema was sick with remorse that she couldn't reach the man in time to say something to him. That same year in 2015, six more people leapt to their deaths from the Smith Avenue bridge. Bogema's friend Sandi Williams tore a girl away just as she was about to attempt.

As one of the tallest bridges in the state over a body of water, the High Bridge has a long history of suicide. But 2015 was a particularly bad year, and St. Paul residents felt that at long last, something had to be done.

Bogema started a petition to get the Department of Transportation's attention. Suicide has never been a popular subject of conversation, and some mental health experts are opposed to speaking publicly about it for fear of contagion. But Bogema worried that silence was the wrong strategy.

"I didn't care if anyone would be against me. I just had to do something about it," she says. "Emotionally abusive relationships, people get shut down, told to not talk about things, so I think the best thing is to talk, whether positive or negative."

Neighbors walked the bridge in memory of those who'd jumped. They left ribbons as messages of hope. When mental health experts cautioned against the contagion risks of those gestures, neighbors approached MnDOT and insisted on suicide prevention barriers.

MnDOT, a transportation agency with little public health experience, consulted with the Department of Health and discovered that data supported the public's concerns. Heated community meetings pitted those who thought the suicidal would always find a means against those who believed saving them was worth a try.

Research indicates that barriers do work, says the Health Department's Melissa Heinen.

"Most people who think about suicide don't attempt, most people who attempt don't die, and most people who attempt don't attempt again," she says. "Anything we can do during that time to decrease the seriousness of injury is a good thing."

After considering about a dozen designs, MnDOT settled on the 9-foot tall railing to be included in its High Bridge renovation project, which will be completed in the fall of 2018. It would more than double the height of the old railing.

A lot of thought went into its architecture, says project manager Dale Gade. While studies suggest that no barrier will ever be 100 percent successful, Swiss research showed that an 8- or 9-foot barrier could result in 75 percent reduction in suicides. MnDOT also accounted for logical footholds and handholds in order to deter climbing.

"Not even a good portion of the population can do many pullups, so it addresses that height distance that makes it very hard for someone to lift themselves up and over," Gade says.

Bogema wanted to see more emphasis placed on beauty, but she's glad to see the state doing what it can.

"Any step forward in progress is better than in the past. Let's just hope it makes a difference."