Bridge barrier at the centre of discussion about mental health in Niagara Region

A landmark bridge in St. Catharines has become the focal point of discussions about mental health in the Niagara Region, as council gets set to vote on whether to spend $4 million to build a barrier supports say will save lives.

Niagara has set aside $4M to build the barrier 1 councillor says will 'save lives'

Pedestrians walk across Burgoyne Bridge in St. Catharines. The span has been at the centre of a debate about mental health in the Niagara Region following a series of suicides. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

A landmark bridge in St. Catharines has become the focal point of discussions about mental health in the Niagara Region, as council gets set to vote on whether to spend $4 million to build a barrier supporters say will save lives.

The region's public works committee voted 10-3 in support of the controversial barrier last week. Now it's up to council to decide during its meeting on April 25 whether to initiate spending of the millions set aside to construct it.

With its distinct white steel supports, the Burgoyne Bridge is a unique span that's been recognized with design awards, but in recent months following a series of suicides it's been the scene of a public rally and messages of love and support have coated its railings.

"[The bridge] has definitely focused the entire Niagara community … on the issue of mental health generally and suicide in particular," said Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for the region. He said he's sensed a desire in the community to "have something tangible done."

Notes of hope 

Wendi Duggan and her children are the people who penned those first notes of hope on the bridge's railings.

The Thorold mother said members of her family have struggled with mental health and anxiety. After hearing about a death at the bridge, she wanted to show her kids a simple show of support can make a big difference.

"I thought maybe this is a way for them to turn the negative into a positive by them speaking to the people that are going to the bridge," she explained.

"We are a community and sometimes just caring for a stranger is enough."

That message took off, touching hundreds who came out for an Oct. 14 mental health vigil on the bridge and even inspiring two mental health workers who stayed out on the span overnight to speak with people walking across it.

During the vigil Duggan met Stephanie Farquharson and together the two have created a group called Niagara United, aimed at fighting for better mental health care in the Niagara Region.

"We are the voices for the people who don't have them. If it has to be that we speak for people who have already passed because they've lost their struggle with mental illness, we feel like those people deserve a voice," said Duggan, adding they also speak for people struggling in the system 

Hundreds gathered for a vigil on the bridge on Oct. 14. (Cory Nixon Photography/Bridges of Hope)

"There are still lots of people in the system or working with the system or working with the system who feel like they're not being heard."

Mental health support in the region is full of gaps that need to be bridged for years, she added. Now the conversations around the bridge itself have allowed those discussion to finally happen publicly while working to do something positive.

"The bridge allowed us an outlet to talk about mental health that wasn't just about suicide."

Barriers 'save lives,' says councillor

Regional councillor Laura Ip said the main obstacle keeping people from mental health support in Niagara is capacity — those in need are getting stuck on long wait lists.

She said she's received just as many emails from people against the barrier as she has from those who want it, but for her the question of whether or not to build has an easy answer.

"We can't solve all of the mental health issues in the community … but this particular property is something we can do something about."

Ip said research shows barriers are enough to give someone in distress pause and help them seek the support they need.

"They save lives," she said bluntly.

The region has reacted to the deaths by putting up signs at the bridge with the phone number for a crisis line. Public Health has also voted to increase mental health staffing and suicide prevention training.

Dr. Hirji says putting up a barrier is just one part of an overall effort to meet the mental health needs of the Niagara Region. (Dan Taekema/CBC)

The councillor anticipates lots of public support at the upcoming meeting, which she said will most likely be the final vote on whether to go ahead with the barriers or not.

Other councillors have pointed out the bridge isn't the only place in the region where people die by suicide, but Ip says that isn't a reason not to put them up.

"There are some things the region can do and the thinking that because we can't solve the whole problem we shouldn't try to do anything is frankly … very defeatist."

Barrier just part of the battle

Dr. Hirji, said in the past six months, six people have died by suicide at the bridge meaning the rate of death —slightly more than one per month — is the second highest in North America.

In a four-page memo sent to the region's planning committee he laid out scientific support for barriers, along with their cost-effectiveness.

But, Hirji added, simply building a barrier won't meet every mental health need in Niagara.

That's a bigger battle.

"I think the bridge barrier is something important and something we need to do now, but the bigger problem is something we're going to have to be working on from many avenues for a while."

There are resources available in the Niagara Region for someone in need of mental health support.

The Crisis Outreach and Support Team (COAST) provides services for people in crisis and have a mental health concern. Call 1-866-550-5205.

Pathstone Mental Health also has a 24-hour crisis support line for children and youth. Call 1-800-263-4944.