Suicide prevention advocates say R.I. bridges need barriers and they need them now

Support slowly building in General Assembly

By: - May 25, 2023 2:30 pm

A sign for 911 and the crisis hotline number operated by the Samaritans of Rhode Island is posted on the Newport end of the Newport Pell Bridge. (Photo by Janine L. Weisman/Rhode Island Current)

During his 17 years with the West Warwick Police Department, Matt Beltrami responded to hundreds of calls to help people in crisis. A decorated crisis negotiator, he had received training as an opioid response liaison and for mental health first aid and was also known for his compassion and dedication to addressing the mental health concerns of first responders.

“Matt was the epitome of the department’s motto that emphasized courage, sacrifice and devotion,” his sister Christine Beltrami told lawmakers at a recent House Finance Committee hearing at the State House.

She was there to honor her brother’s memory and to advocate for legislation that could have saved his life. Matt Beltrami jumped to his death from the Pell Bridge on April 1, 2021. He was 42 years old and the father of three children.

Christine Beltrami said that her brother struggled for years with post traumatic stress disorder from his years as a police officer and had even told her over the previous winter before he died that he had suicidal thoughts. He was seeking help but continued to struggle.

She was among the dozens of people who have lost a loved one to suicide on one of Newport County’s four bridges who came to the State House to support a bill that would install suicide-prevention barriers.

Christine Beltrami testifies before the House Committee on Finance on how barriers could have prevented the suicide of her brother Matthew Beltrami. (Screenshot)

The bill sponsored by Rep. Joseph Solomon, a Warwick Democrat, requires the Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority (RITBA) to design and construct barriers and/or netting on the Mount Hope Bridge, Pell, and the Jamestown-Verrazzano bridges by next year. Companion legislation is sponsored in the Senate by Lou DiPalma, a Middletown Democrat. Both bills were held for further study.

The bills do not specifically mention the Sakonnet River Bridge, which connects Tiverton and Portsmouth. But DiPalma said he is planning to seek a budget amendment to allocate $750,000 to study the feasibility of nets and barriers to the Sakonnet and Pell bridges.

Last year, the state appropriated $1 million in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds for a study with Atkins Global, a British multinational engineering company, on the Mount Hope and Jamestown bridges. The results of the study are due to be finalized in May 2024.

For Solomon, adding barriers is especially personal, saying he lost one of his friends to the Pell Bridge a few years ago.

“It kind of opened my eyes to a lot of things,” he said. “We need to save as many lives as we can.”

The legislation calls for designs to be ready by Jan. 1, 2024, with construction commencing no later than June 30, 2024 — a time frame the authority is hesitant to support.

RITBA Executive Director Lori Caron Silveira said in a letter that the state’s proposal “mandates an unrealistic timeline for the work involved in the barrier feasibility study.”

“Altering the structure of bridges that are nearly 94 years old, 54 years old, and 31 years old, respectively, requires careful study,” she wrote, referring respectively to the Mount Hope, Pell and Jamestown bridges. “Any kind of fence, steel mesh net, or other barrier could affect the integrity and safety of the bridge on which it is installed.” 

DiPalma said he plans to revise the time frame in his bill to be more realistic, but emphasized the need to get barriers up as soon as possible.

“Another day could mean another life that’s lost,” he said. 

Mark Gonsalves tells lawmakers his story of surviving a 200-foot fall from the Pell Bridge in 2015. (Screenshot)

Advocates call for barriers now

In the past two years, the Rhode Island Department of Health (RIDOH) reported 12 bridge-related suicides in Newport County.

A department spokesperson said that historically, RIDOH data has not included the name of the bridge (just county of injury), but the state has begun documenting the bridge names for deaths beginning in 2021. 

Between 2021 and 2022, no bridge has been identified more than five times. The state data does not count a death by suicide if a body is not recovered, which happened in Beltrami’s case. His sister said the state spent two weeks trying to locate his body, but he was never found.

Another day could mean another life that’s lost.

– Sen. Lou DiPalma (D-Middletown)

Melissa Cotta, who started the group Bridging the Gap for Safety & Healing, said she has documented 40 jumps since 2016. Cotta said she sees Solomon’s bill as the solution to further reducing suicides.

“Each day without safety barriers and nets, we risk more loss of life and immeasurable costs to those left behind,” Cotta said.

RITBA operates a camera system designed to dispatch trained professionals to a person in need and to communicate with the individual while help is on the way. The system also has audio and video analytic capabilities for pinpointing rescue locations in the water without delay, Silveira, the authority’s director, wrote to the House Committee on Finance.

Signs with the phone numbers of suicide prevention hotlines are posted on bridges for The Samaritans of Rhode Island, E-911, and the East Bay Community Action Program/ Bristol Health Equity Zone. 

Installing barriers is more effective than other bridge suicide prevention methods, such as signs, hotlines, and staff training, Missy Ames, the board chair of the Rhode Island chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told lawmakers.

According to a 2017 study, installing nets can reduce suicides by 77.1%. Barriers led to a 68.7% reduction.

Barriers have been effective in lowering the number of suicides on the Bourne and Sagamore Bridges heading onto Cape Cod, Massachusetts — which are believed to be the first bridges in the nation to have such barriers

Between 1967 and 1977, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers recorded a total of 36 persons as having died by suicide from the Bourne and Sagamore bridges, and another 24 had attempted but either survived or were apprehended. 

A 12-foot high suicide deterrent fence on the Bourne Bridge was completed in 1981 as part of a $10.9 million rehabilitation. Barriers for the Sagamore Bridge were installed in 1983.

In the 40 years since then, 10 persons are known to have died by suicide from both bridges.

“Barriers give suicidal individuals and those who care for them something they desperately need – time,” Ames testified. 

Mark Gonsalves fell 200 feet into the bay after jumping from the Pell Bridge in 2015 and lived to tell lawmakers about it. He said he survived “only through the grace of God and by no means through the safety of the Newport Pell Bridge or Rhode Island bridges.”

“The Rhode Island symbol has an anchor and the word ‘hope’ on it,” Gonsalves said before the House Finance Committee. “I pray and hope that you are never directly impacted by suicide by way of one of the state of Rhode Island’s bridges — you have an obligated duty as a Rhode Island elected official to ensure the safety of we the people.”

Funding mental health

In addition to barriers, DiPalma said there needs to be more state funding allocated toward mental health support.

“If somebody is getting to the point where they’re going to drive up to a bridge, get out of their car and jump, there’s some serious issues,” he said. “We need to ensure they get the service they need before there’s a thought in their mind.”

DiPalma noted the state last year appropriated $30 million for Certified Community Behavioral Health Clinics (CCBHC) to expand behavioral care services. Additionally, a bill sponsored by Lincoln Democrat Rep. Mary Ann Shallcross Smith, would establish a core state behavioral health crisis services system, which would be administered by the Department of Behavioral Healthcare, Developmental Disabilities and Hospitals. That bill was also held by the House Committee on Finance for further study.

Mental health funding is certainly part of the story, said Denise Panichas, the executive director for The Samaritans of Rhode Island.

“You’ve got 988, emergency rooms, hospitals, community action agencies, school based providers — there’s a lot of people giving care,” Panichas said. “The bridges, however, are entities where the availability is 24/7.”

She also said people who go up on a bridge contemplating jumping are not just a danger to themselves, but also to a bystander or first responder trying to intervene who could be pulled over the railing with them.

“Is that the headline Rhode Island wants?” Panichas said. “Or do we want to be a leader in making a difference?”

 If your or someone you know is facing mental health problems, or feeling suicidal, one of the following resources can help:

  • The Samaritans of Rhode Island: (401) 272-4044 or (800) 365-4044
  • The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: (800) 273-TALK, or (800) 273-8255
  • Contact the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.
  • The crisis lifeline, the nation’s new three-digit suicide-prevention and mental-health crisis phone number: 988


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Christopher Shea
Christopher Shea

Christopher Shea covers politics, the criminal justice system and transportation for the Rhode Island Current.