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Does steel netting around bridges prevent suicide?



Maple Leaf Garden’s sex abuse victim Martin Kruze was but one of many to choose the Bloor Street Viaduct to end his life

When someone is determined to end his or her life, choosing to jump off a bridge is a pretty good bet. The impact of falling over 30 metres at about 120-129 kilometres an hour is akin to being hit by a speeding car.

To prevent the temptation by those overcome with despair and hopelessness, a barrier was constructed around Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct in 2003 – at a cost of 5½ million dollars. Known as the second most popular “suicide bridge” in the world (San Francisco’s Golden Gate ranks number one), some of the 400 people who’ve taken their lives there had travelled from afar to this particular bridge, since its construction in 1918.

City planners were anxious to know whether such a deterrent – dubbed the Luminous Veil – would work.

The verdict: “It works…,” says chief psychiatrist Anthony Levitt of Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre, “…at the Bloor Street Viaduct.” Indeed, suicide rates there dropped from an average of 9.3 to zero per year. Depressed individuals – mostly men in their mid-30s -- however, chose alternative bridges to end their lives since the Luminous Veil was constructed, making the annual rate of bridge jumping suicides almost unchanged. Dr. Levitt and resident doctor Mark Sinyor, part of the study team at Sunnybrook and the U of T (BMJ 2010;341:c2884) noted that since the barrier was erected bridge jumpers rose from 8.7 to 14.2 each year at other bridges. The researchers conclude that building physical barriers is only a part of the solution. “You need programs that improve access to psychiatrists and other mental health workers,” says Dr. Sinyor.

It seems abundantly clear that if millions of dollars are available to fight suicide, perhaps they could be better spent for mental health support, leaving artists like Bruce Cockburn to invent an alternate line for “You could have gone off the Bloor Street Viaduct” in his humorous song, “Anything Could Happen.”

1 comments:

Anonymous said...

Dear Editor: In 2002, with my late colleague Al Birney (deceased June 2006), I was the co-recipient of a Volunteer of the Year Award from the City of Toronto for our leadership of the Bloor Viaduct suicide-prevention campaign. While author Mark Sinyor's research has merits, I believe the present study is premature and suffers at least three serious oversights or shortcomings. (1.) It confines its focus to only nine years pre-barrier and merely four years post-barrier. Such a small statistical sample is inadequate to draw any unequivocal conclusions about the effectiveness of the barrier, especially given the 92-year history of the Viaduct. (2.) It makes no allowances for the overall population growth of Toronto. In this sense, I am heartened that "suicides by jumping" have flat-lined, while the city has continued to grow. (3.) The study makes no account of the suicide prevention value of eliminating the "copy cat" or secondary risk to witnesses and bystanders of suicides at a public place. People who are traumatized by witnessing a suicide are at much higher risk for later suicide attempts of their own. Prior to the barrier's construction, suicides at the Viaduct were witnessed by pedestrians, cyclists, motorists, police and students of the nearby high school. In truth, it will take another generation to gather enough information to accurately measure the life-saving potential of the "Luminous Veil," and to fully appreciate the legacy of Al Birney and the barrier's advocates. -- Michael McCamus, Vice-Chair, Bridge Committee, Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, Toronto.