PEI·CBC Investigates

Hillsborough Bridge redesign won't include suicide prevention barriers

Major work on the Hillsborough Bridge won't include suicide prevention barriers, despite barriers being one of the key recommendations in the province's suicide prevention strategy in 2018.

P.E.I. government's suicide prevention strategy had called for barriers 3 years ago

'I'm disappointed that that wasn't made a priority," says Courtney Crosby, of the lack of suicide prevention barriers on the Hillsborough Bridge. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

WARNING: This story deals with suicide. Help line information appears at the bottom. 

Mental health advocates are disappointed that extensive construction on the Hillsborough Bridge will not include suicide prevention barriers, even though they were recommended in the P.E.I. government's suicide prevention strategy, released three years ago.

The bridge that connects Charlottetown and Stratford has been under renovation since October to add a cycling and walking lane. The work will include replacing the guard rail along the side of the bridge, but that railing won't have an extra anti-jumping barrier added to its height.

"It makes me feel frustrated," said mental health advocate Courtney Crosby. "We often hear that this is a common place where people will go when they're in those desperate moments and feeling suicidal.

"I'm disappointed that that wasn't made a priority," she said.

Construction on the Hillsborough Bridge began in October 2020 and is expected to be complete by the spring of 2021. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

'Not designed for the higher wind loads'

The Department of Transportation and Infrastructure told CBC News that no one was available for an interview about the bridge work.

However, in an email, a spokesperson said the department had decided "the funds would be better spent on mental health services. Also, the bridge was not designed for the higher wind loads associated with the additional rail height, nor was it strengthened to account for the additional loads."

CBC News asked whether an estimate had been done on the cost of adding barriers and requested an interview to explain why they weren't part of the design for the renovations, but those answers were not provided.

The posts are installed for a new railing alongside the Hillsborough Bridge. (Shane Hennessey/CBC)

Adding barriers was one of the key action items in a suicide prevention strategy released in May 2018 by the Department of Health and Wellness, in partnership with the Canadian Mental Health Association, P.E.I. division. 

The strategy was devised after a year of research, analysis, and consultations with Islanders, community groups and service providers.

CBC News contacted the Department of Health and Wellness, which published the strategy with CMHA in 2018, and got a statement in an email.

"Health and Wellness continues to explore solutions that could assist in decreasing the number of suicides in Prince Edward Island," it said. "DHW will work with Transportation and Infrastructure to understand if the bridge can structurally support suicide barriers."

'Ignore expert advice'

"Any time that government is choosing to ignore expert advice and recommendations that are based on evidence, I think that's very concerning," said Green MLA Trish Altass, the Opposition critic for health and wellness.

"When we have recommendations that come from organizations like CMHA, who are experts in mental health and addictions, who are working on the ground with Islanders in crisis day in and day out … we need to take those recommendations seriously, and … government needs to act on them," she said.

'Any time that government is choosing to ignore expert advice and recommendations that are based on evidence, I think that's very concerning,' says Green MLA and Opposition health and wellness critic Trish Altass. (Sally Pitt/CBC)

Mental health advocate Sarah Stewart-Clark was one of a group of residents on a committee that called for barriers several years ago as a means of reducing the potential for suicides on the bridge. 

"We know that we can't put up barriers on every bridge. But this is a bridge that is visible from and within walking distance to our psychiatric hospital. Hillsborough Bridge has a history with people jumping and so it was our highest priority," she said.

While the bridge may not have been designed to support the weight and higher wind loads of barriers, Stewart-Clark said with extensive work being done now, "it would be the perfect time to have the engineers propose a solution that would allow barriers."

Altass agrees. "To think that there's no way to problem-solve around putting these barriers up doesn't seem to make sense to me," she said.

'Band-aid' solution needed

While installing barriers wouldn't prevent all suicides, Crosby said it could offer a temporary solution until permanent ones can be found.

If we don't put those Band-aids in place, then we're eventually going to be bleeding out.- Courtney Crosby

"If we don't put those Band-aids in place, then we're eventually going to be bleeding out. And I think it's a really scary time right now for people struggling with mental illness," she said.

"Even if it saved one life, I think it's well worth the money," she added.

Altass said finding long-term solutions to suicide will take time and requires looking at poverty, access to affordable housing, and overall mental health and well-being.

Barriers were installed on the Jacques Cartier Bridge in Montreal in 2003. (CBC)

A study by Toronto Public Health in 2018, Interventions to Prevent Suicide from Bridges, looked at bridges all across Canada and around the world, and concluded barriers were effective in preventing suicide deaths.

Here on P.E.I., Parks Canada installed barriers on the Covehead Bridge in 2016 to stop swimmers from jumping into the water for fun. The jumping barriers cost about $100,000 as part of the overall $5.8-million project and "have been very effective at reducing the number of bridge jumpers," according to a statement by Parks Canada.

Barriers along the MacDonald Bridge between Halifax and Dartmouth have been a feature since 2009. Improvements were made to them a few years ago. (Dale Wilson/Halifax Harbour Bridges)

In Halifax, three-metre safety barriers were added in 2009 to an existing handrail along the Macdonald Bridge to help discourage people from jumping, and were further improved a few years ago. The bridge allows for pedestrian and bike traffic. 

Back in 2018, the P.E.I. committee looking into suicide prevention also recommended cameras and an emergency phone be placed on the Hillsborough Bridge.

Two surveillance cameras were installed on the bridge last year, in part to provide Charlottetown police with an immediate view of anyone at risk of jumping. They were installed in partnership with the provincial government, which contributed $10,000 for the equipment.

However, Crosby pointed to the closure of the Psychiatric Urgent Care Clinic in Charlottetown in January, and the sealing of a tunnel under Water Street in the city that had been used for shelter and for drug injection, as blows for those struggling with mental health and addictions.

The barrier installed at Covehead Bridge in 2016 was designed to make the bridge hard to scale. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC News)

The chief coroner at the time, Dr. Desmond Colohan, also endorsed the installation of barriers back in 2018.

When contacted by CBC News, the Department of Justice and Public Safety provided a statement: "Bridge barriers may be a deterrent to those in mental health distress but it is only one measure. The Department of Justice and Public Safety is focused on taking a prevention and early intervention approach to support community safety and wellbeing."

Help line information:

Anyone needing emotional support, crisis intervention or help with problem solving in P.E.I. can contact The Island Helpline at 1-800-218-2885 or the Canada Suicide Prevention Service at 1-833-456-4566.

The Kids Help Phone is a national counselling service that is free to young people around the clock. It can be reached by calling 1-800-668-6868 or texting 686868 or 741741.

More from CBC P.E.I.

 

About the Author

Sally Pitt

Producer

Sally Pitt is a producer with CBC and has worked as a journalist for more than 30 years in online, TV, radio and print. She specializes in justice issues and also works with the CBC Atlantic Investigative Unit. You can reach her at sally.pitt@cbc.ca.

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