Five people have taken or attempted to take their own lives in parking structures in Downtown Santa Monica since last September, and experts say it might be time for City Hall to consider ways to prevent future attempts.
Mark Kaplan, a professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs who studies suicide, said five suicides or suicide attempts at similar locations in a yearlong period is cause for concern.
“I wouldn’t call it an epidemic, but I’d call it an issue,” he said.
Four individuals died between September 2018 and August of this year. Last Sunday, Santa Monica Police Department officers talked down an individual who planned to jump from the roof of Parking Structure 3.
SMPD responded to 30 other calls for suicides or attempted suicides between September 2018 and September 2019, according to public records. Every officer receives training on suicides, mental health and crisis negotiation, and the department maintains a crisis negotiation team that responds to calls for suicide, said Lt. Candice Cobarrubias.
City manager Rick Cole said last Sunday’s suicide attempt suggests a pattern may be taking hold, but he noted that suicide routinely occurs in less visible locations in Santa Monica, including at the beach and in homes and garages.
Cole said he plans to discuss possible measures to prevent suicide in downtown parking structures with local stakeholders.
“I am committed to convening thoughtful discussions with medical experts, law enforcement, Downtown Santa Monica stakeholders and city officials to assess whether there are additional steps we can take to divert troubled individuals from making a fatal mistake,” he said.
A 2016 survey of members of the International Parking & Mobility Institute, the world’s largest association of professionals in parking, transportation and mobility, found that 48% had experienced a suicide or suicide attempt in one of their parking structures.
A 2016 IPMI report on suicide in parking structures published the same year lists physical barriers, cameras and signage as possible prevention measures. But barriers come at a high cost, the report said.
“The University of Iowa is performing a study to screen seven campus garages, with an estimated total construction cost of $1.5 million,” the report said. “The cost to screen levels four and higher in a seven- or eight-level garage is about $220,000, based on this study.”
Local experts agreed that fences or barriers discourage individuals from jumping.
“It’s often an impulsive act, and there’s research showing that people think twice if there’s a barrier,” Kaplan said. “That doesn’t mean people won’t go elsewhere or take their own lives some other way, but you can at least erect barriers that reduce the possibility of this happening again.”
All but one of the 10 public parking structures in Downtown Santa Monica have steel cables or grid fencing enclosing their top levels, but the barriers are no taller than 6 feet.
Studies have shown taller barriers to be effective deterrents, said Lyn Morris, senior vice president of clinical operations at Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, a Los Angeles-based organization that provides free mental health, substance abuse disorder and suicide prevention services.
“If it’s something the average-sized person could crawl and get over with a little effort, it wouldn’t serve as the barrier you need,” she said.
Morris said putting up signs with suicide hotline information and training parking employees to identify people who seem at risk of suicide could also help prevent suicide attempts.
Suicides in Los Angeles Metro train stations dropped when Didi Hirsch put up signs in 2013, she said. The organization also trained all Metro operators to recognize behaviors that could indicate someone is contemplating suicide.
“It’s important to have signs in places leading up to where they may jump, which in parking structures would be the elevators and stairwells,” she said. “Anything that can interrupt their thought process at that point is helpful, and suicide hotline signage lets people know there’s a confidential, anonymous resource out there.”
Morris also recommended training community members to identify signs of suicide.
“If you see somebody looking distraught walking alone at night in a parking structure, it wouldn’t hurt to say, “you look lost, can I help you with something?”,” she said. “Again, it interrupts their thought process. Often, people think they shouldn’t intervene, but just asking someone if they’re okay can make a huge difference.”
If you or someone you know may be struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255) any time day or night, or chat online.
Crisis Text Line also provides free, 24/7, confidential support via text message to people in crisis when they dial 741741.