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Milwaukee’s Hoan Bridge under construction for safety improvements

Fences along bridges are helpful in preventing suicides, experts say

The Milwaukee Hoan Bridge at sunset
This image taken with a drone shows the Milwaukee Hoan Bridge at sunset Saturday, Feb. 27, 2021, in Milwaukee. Morry Gash/AP

A six-foot fence is being installed on both sides of Milwaukee’s Daniel Hoan Memorial Bridge to address safety concerns.

The Wisconsin Department of Transportation said the fence is going up as part of safety updates to the bridge, which spans the Milwaukee River as it joins Lake Michigan. Although the department did not directly cite suicide risk as a reason for the installation, more than 40 people have jumped to their deaths from the bridge over the last two decades, and experts say the fence could go a long way towards prevention.

The two-mile-long bridge in Milwaukee is a part of I-794 and crosses the river, the Summerfest grounds, the Milwaukee Metropolitan Sewerage District and the Port of Milwaukee.

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A statement from the department said the barrier will prevent snow and debris from falling from the bridge and causing property damage and personal injury. The sewerage district has reported at least 30 safety incidents from 2018 to 2019 as a result of debris falling from the bridge.

In the project proposal, the DOT said the other goal is to limit access to the railing. According to data from the Milwaukee County Medical Examiner’s Office, 43 people jumped to their deaths from the bridge between 2003 and October 2022.

Last year, Youssef Barsoum of New Berlin launched an online petition to secure the Hoan after someone close to him died by suicide there. More than 2,500 people signed the high school student’s online petition.

“Knowing that this barrier would have prevented, or at least delay, the act of suicide by a close loved one hurts a lot, especially when there is no action taken,” Barsoum wrote in the petition.

Sara Kohlbeck, the director of the Division of Suicide Prevention at the Medical College of Wisconsin, said fences along bridges are effective in preventing suicides.

“This is a very welcomed addition to the bridge,” Kohlbeck said.

She said suicide can be an impulsive decision, and adding time and distance between a person and their selected means to end their lives can be lifesaving.

“Oftentimes that provides that person a few moments to reconsider. It often also can provide time for that person perhaps to reach out for help or for maybe somebody else to notice that this person is in crisis and needs help,” Kohlbeck said.

Researchers at Johns Hopkins University found that after an antisuicide fence was installed along a bridge in Washington, DC, suicide deaths from that site decreased by 90 percent.

Research also suggests a person is unlikely to seek another means to end their life if their immediate plan fails.

“This is definitely a much-needed suicide prevention strategy for our community,” Kohlbeck said.

According to WISN, the DOT previously rejected requests to add suicide prevention barriers to the bridge, citing doubts that barriers actually deter suicides. Of Wisconsin’s 14,320 highway bridges, 564 have some sort of protective screening, according to the DOT.

Along with the fencing, the new construction will include new pavement markings and signage.

“Drivers should be alert for daytime shoulder closures as well as short-term, daytime and nighttime outside lane closures along I-794,” the DOT said in a statement.

The project is scheduled for completion around mid-December 2023.

If you or someone you know is in crisis or considering suicide, call or text the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Help is available.

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