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Niagara Region votes to install suicide-prevention barriers on St. Catharines bridge

Niagara Regional Council has decided to install suicide-prevention barriers on a St. Catharines bridge, but while advocates are celebrating the vote as a victory, they say more still needs to be done to support mental health in the area.

Region is working on a 5-pillar plan to improve mental health support

Niagara Regional Council has voted to spend $4 million on suicide-prevention barriers for a St. Catharines bridge. This image was included in a report about the barriers and shows how a proposed barrier could look. (Niagara Region/Public Works)

Niagara Regional Council has decided to install suicide-prevention barriers on a St. Catharines bridge, but while advocates are celebrating the vote as a victory, they say more still needs to be done to support mental health in the area.

Council voted 23-4 Thursday to begin spending the $4 million it had set aside to build the barriers on Burgoyne Bridge.

The decision came following weeks of debate, but Stephanie Farquharson from Niagara United — a community organization pushing for better mental health services in the region — said the vote shows councillors did their research and came to understand the barriers will save lives.

"I'm very thankful and grateful," she said. "It is going to help people."

Still, Farquharson noted, barriers alone are not an overall solution for suicide prevention.

"It's not the end. It's a step in the right direction."

Barriers just part of mental health strategy

Dr. Mustafa Hirji, acting medical officer of health for the region, said in the past six months, six people have died by suicide at the bridge. This means the rate of death — slightly more than one per month — is the second highest in North America, he said. 

He described council's vote as a response to a strong public sentiment that the region "take some tangible action after the many recent deaths we've seen at this one location … and really to address mental health more generally."

During the council meeting, Hirji said critics raised issue with spending so much on barriers instead of overall mental health supports in the area. He said they also shared worries about setting a precedent for barriers at other locations, especially ones that aren't regional property.

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)

While he acknowledged those concerns, Hirji said he remains convinced barriers are cost-effective and that there is scientific evidence to support the fact they prevent deaths.

Farquharson echoed the doctor's response, saying the price tag of the project may be large, but so is the benefit the barriers will bring.

"It's a lot of money, but when you start looking into the value of a human life, when do we stop?" she said.

Region also adding 2 mental health positions

Council also voted in favour of spending about $170,000 per year to create two full-time equivalent positions for staff members who will provide training on suicide awareness and intervention.

Both the barriers and staff positions are part of a five-pillar plan to improve mental health support in the region.

"I was heartened councillors perceived there was a strong public resolve to make a major investment here to address death by suicide," said Hirji.

Where to get help

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.