Foyle Reeds to improve on Toronto initiative that eliminated suicides

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‘Foyle Reeds’ will be the largest art work in the North and, it’s hoped, will replicate an initiative that all but eliminated suicides on the second most lethal bridge in North America, writes Kevin Mullan.

Prior to 2003, nine people each year on average took their own lives from the Bloor Street Viaduct, Toronto; the worst death rate anywhere in North America apart from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

In the 11 years (2004–2014) following the installation of a new suicide-prevention barrier at the bridge, just one person took their own life, researchers reported in a study published in the British Medical Journal last year.

Now those behind the ‘Our Future Foyle’ project, which has been undertaken by the Helen Hamlyn Centre for Design at the Royal College of Art on behalf of the Public Health Agency (PHA), believe ‘Foyle Reeds’ could help Derry achieve a similar outcome.

In fact, in a report accompanying the initiative that was completed last year, Alwani, R., Raby, E., West., J, Spencer, J., Bonner, B., and Bichard. J., suggest that the proposed Foyle Bridge art work will improve on that which has already been proved in Canada.

“To date a similar approach has been used only once (to the team’s knowledge), with the implementation of the Luminous Veil in Toronto, Canada, on the Bloor Viaduct,” the authors state.

“However, this intervention still has the aesthetic of a suicide barrier during the day, with an added lighting element in the evening and does not represent a coherent design approach,” they add.

The academics are determined ‘Foyle Reeds’ does not fall into the same trap and have suggested that as well as forming an effective barrier, it can also become a beautiful landmark the city can be proud of and enjoy.

Whilst designed to act as “an effective suicide prevention barrier” it’s hoped it can also change “the perception of the bridge to a positive icon with a sense of community ownership.”

The authors reported widespread public support for the installation following a public consultation over the past two years.

‘Foyle Reeds’ will be at least 2.5 metres high, will have no toe or foot holds, will be ifficult to climb from the inside and “easier to scale from the outside, in case an individual wishes to climb back to safety.”

“Foyle Reeds is the largest proposed public artwork in Northern Ireland, a permanent interactive art installation and barrier that takes inspiration from the natural surroundings of the river,” write Alwani et al.

“The water reeds situated along the Foyle banks provide shelter and safety for local wildlife as well as framing the view for pedestrians using the riverside paths.

“The concept of the installation combines the visual language of the local flora with a robust interactive lighting engagement and community-supported installation to create both a functional suicide prevention barrier as well as becoming an icon to both local and tourists alike,” they add.

Taking a snap shot of a single unspecified year that saw over 200 incidents on and around the river the ‘Our Future Foyle Report’ found that the Foyle Bridge accounted for less interventions (34) than both the city’s newest river crossing, the Peace Bridge (42), and it’s oldest, the Craigavon Bridge (68).

However, people attempting to take their own lives at the Foyle Bridge were deemed more likely to have planned the act in advance than those attempting to enter the water from the southerly bridges.

“In relation to the River Foyle, those who have planned their suicide are most likely to have entered the water from the Foyle Bridge with impulsive suicides more likely to have entered from the banks or lower bridges,” the report states.

“Accessibility of the lower bridges/banks from the town centre and venues selling alcohol means that impulsive suicides are more likely. However, the Foyle Bridge has several important key features associated with planned suicides: accessibility via car, relatively quiet periods where someone could visit undisturbed and also a high success rate. To date, only two people are known to have survived a fall from the Foyle Bridge,” it found.

The researchers say physical barriers are the best way of reducing suicide rates and have been known to reduce deaths by between 50 and 90 per cent, as in Toronto.

However, ‘Our Future Foyle’ is more than about just putting up a suicide barrier on Ireland’s longest bridge, it’s about looking at the river in a new, more positive way.

For instance, ‘Our Future Foyle’ plans developing another project called ‘Foyle Bubbles’ that will see a series of satellite spaces for various cultural, arts, retail and recreational events and activities dotted along the riverfront.

This will increase footfall and de-stigmatise the river.

Although research shows that between 2005 and 2011, only eight per cent of deaths by suicide in the North were as a result of drowning, compared with hanging (60.5 per cent) and overdoses (18.7 per cent), “local people believe that a much higher number of people enter the water than actually do so, increasing the stigma of the location”.

The report notes: “The River Foyle and its banks currently have a reputation for suicidal behaviour, the term ‘Ready for the Foyle’ is a commonly used in jest as a local phrase at times of stress or hardship.

“This points to the need to reframe the space to reduce the stigma that drives vulnerable people to the river.”

‘Foyle Reeds’ and ‘Foyle Bubbles’, alongside a range of other interventions proposed along the river, will hopefully result in a sea-change in how citizens view the River Foyle.

Getting more people onto and enjoying the river and riverside and viewing it and using it positively can help achieve this.

“During riverfront events such as the maritime and Hallowe’en festivals, the Foyle Search and Rescue team see zero incidents relating to suicidal behaviour,” the report claims.

“Suicidologists involved in the project have linked this to a greater feeling of community cohesion. Increasing footfall has been seen to reduce attempts in isolated and disconnected areas.

“Pearson (1993) and King & Frost (2005) have outlined that ‘peace and seclusion…is a vital ingredient in many suicides.’

“Therefore, increasing footfall around the riverfront may work in this way,” they add.

The Lifeline helpline is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.

Anyone of any age living in the North can call the helpline for free on 0808 808 8000 if they are experiencing distress or despair.