Guest Blog Interview With The Author of The Suicide Magnet: Inside the Battle to Erect a Safety Barrier on Toronto’s Bloor St Viaduct

Lembi Buchanan with author Paul McLaughlin

The Suicide Magnet follows the heroic advocacy efforts by two extraordinary men, Michael McCamus and the late Al Birney to erect the Luminous Veil on the Bloor Viaduct that has saved countless lives since it was completed 20 years ago. As a journalist, Paul McLaughlin was compelled to tell the whole story, not only the challenges to build a safety barrier to prevent further loss of life but also to raise public awareness of major improvements in crisis services for people struggling with mental health issues, providing hope and saving lives.

LB What inspired you to write about the book?

PM All of the credit goes to Michael, who approached me a few years ago and suggested that I write the story to celebrate the 20th year anniversary of the installation of the Luminous Veil on the Bloor Viaduct. I had known Michael since he took a journalism course that I had taught at Ryerson University (now Toronto Metropolitan University). We became friends and stayed in touch even when Michael moved to Vietnam in August 2012, where he teaches English. While I didn’t think that a publisher would see it as a notable anniversary, I did think that the story itself was worthy of being told.

LB What wasthe tragic allure of the Bloor Viaduct that it became a suicide magnet second only to the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, claiming more than 400 lives since it was built?

PM I don’t know for certain. I’m guessing that it’s because it’s such a wonderful structure, a great architectural accomplishment and engineering masterpiece, spanning 494 metres (1,620 feet) over the Don Valley. Perhaps also because it was such an important addition to the city when it was completed in 1918. It literally bridged the downtown and west end of Toronto with what was then the burgeoning east end.

LB Why was there so much controversy about erecting a safety barrier on the Bloor Viaduct?

PM Many people, politicians included, believed that a jumper, if denied the chance to end their life off the Viaduct, would just find another location. I understand that concern. But Michael and others in the mental health community convinced me that that was not going to happen with all of them. Another major concern was the aesthetics of the bridge, and that a safety barrier, if it was a chain-link fence, would destroy a beautiful and important monument. Others worried about the cost, an estimated $5.5 million for the award-winning design of the Luminous Veil by architect Dereck Revington.

LB Can you talk about the importance of your research including interviews with families who had lost a loved one to suicide?

PM I am very dogged in my research. The Toronto Reference Library had a wealth of online archival material, especially, for me, past issues of The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star. I was on those archival sites for nearly a year gathering information for my book. Michael was also an amazing resource and he shared his impressive archives with me. We engaged in numerous Zoom calls and countless emails. I am also indebted to the many people who agreed to talk to me, often about painful memories.

LB Your book contains detailed descriptions of people’s experiences with mental illness, psychosis, suicide, murder-suicide, and child sexual abuse taken from news media reports and your own interviews with survivors and their families. Are there specific guidelines or ethical standards to follow when writing about suicide?

PM Suicide is the last taboo in our society. We have seen so many changes in social policy, from smoking, drinking, and domestic violence, because of the public outcry that discussing such topics generated. What we really need to do is to be able to talk about suicide openly. We need to stop pretending that suicide doesn’t happen. We also need to address the fact that the resources are not always there when people need them. The inability of hospitals to admit and keep suicidal persons under their control was a common complaint of many families with a loved one dealing with mental health issues. I write about Martin Kruze, who was taken to the Toronto East York Hospital by the timely intervention of a constable who prevented him from jumping. But he was released against the wishes of his family and jumped off the Bloor Viaduct six days later.

LB Why was it important to include a chapter about suicide attempts by people jumping off the platform in front of a subway train coming into a station?

PM I felt that it was a powerful adjunct to the bridge. I knew it was a big problem even though the TTC had a policy of not releasing any information for fear of copycat incidents. However, the Ontario Information and Privacy Commissioner ruled in 2009 that it had to release some of the contentious statistics. Also, there was almost no reporting of the trauma experienced by the drivers and first responders even though the TTC operators have PTSD four times the rate of police officers. Some of them never recover. I came across a video of a husband and wife, both of whom had experienced someone jumping in front of their train as they drove into the station. There has been talk of installing platform edge doors (PEDs) to prevent people from jumping in front of a train but the cost is prohibitive, at least $1.5 billion. So, I think that the chances of that happening soon are pretty slim.

LB I found the anecdotal sidebars throughout the book very interesting as well as informative. One of them is about the1999 study, “The Cost of Suicide Mortality in New Brunswick.” Were you surprised by the results?

PM I was blown away by the dollar amounts. The authors of the report offered the financial cost of a suicide, including not just the dollars but also the cents! I have no idea how they calculated that the mean total cost estimate was $849,877.80 per suicide for the 94 deaths reported in 1996.

LB Has the Luminous Veil been successful as far as reducing the overall number of suicide deaths in Toronto?

PM Yes. When you prevent someone from carrying out their plans by erecting a safety barrier, then you save lives. There are no longer suicides at the Bloor Viaduct and no meaningful increase in deaths at other Toronto bridges. And for every life that is saved, that is something to celebrate.

Paul McLaughlin, the author, is an award-winning freelance writer, broadcaster, and teacher of professional writing at York University in Toronto.

The Suicide Magnet: Inside the Battle to Erect a Safety Barrier on Toronto’s Bloor Street Viaduct 247 pages Published by Dundurn Press , November 7, 2023 ISBN 9781459751408, $24.99 paperback and $9.99 in e-book format.

Lembi Buchanan is the author of An Accidental Advocate on fighting the tax man for the mentally ill, Beresford Press, ISBN 978-1738947621 Distributed by Ingram and available from your favourite bookstore.

Coming next week, Dr. David Laing Dawson on Failed Suicide Prevention and What is Really Needed

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