If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, call the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (en español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: dial 711, then 1-800-273-8255), or the Samaritans of Rhode Island 24-hour crisis line at 401-272-4044.

Melissa Cotta and Bryan Ganley first connected online in 2016. Cotta lives in Tiverton and, at the time, had recently witnessed someone jump from a nearby bridge. She was alarmed that there were not more physical barriers in place, and she started to see the bridges as a public safety issue. She contacted Ganley, who lives across the bay in Bristol and has been a suicide prevention volunteer since 1981.

Together, Cotta and Ganley founded Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing. From the start, their goal was the installation of safety barriers or netting on the Newport Pell Bridge, the Jamestown Verrazzano Bridge, and the Mount Hope Bridge.

“It kind of started out, as you know — we put it out there,” Cotta said. “And people just got in touch with us and word of mouth happened.”

Over the past five years, they’ve heard from individuals across Rhode Island who have been impacted: surviving friends and family of those who died by suicide, first responders and police officers who work near the bridges, and locals like Cotta who have witnessed people jump.

“Different things come up — like you go through guilt. You go through, what else could I have done? What didn’t I do? What did I do wrong? That kind of thing,” Cotta said. “And we talked to a lot of survivors that feel that same way.”

The challenge of preventing suicide on these three bridges has been an issue for decades. According to the Rhode Island Department of Health’s latest data, 22 total bridge suicide deaths happened in Newport and Bristol counties between 2014 and 2018. In the past month, three people died. 

“It makes it that much more urgent. We don’t want to lose anyone else,” said Representative Joseph Solomon, who is sponsoring a bill this year that would require the state to erect a safety barrier or netting on all three bridges.

Solomon is from Warwick, but began working with Bridging the Gap after losing a friend to suicide. Solomon said now is also the right time to act, as Rhode Island is set to receive federal dollars for infrastructure projects.

“I'm very optimistic that we're going to get something done on this issue. I've had many of my colleagues come up to me, approach me on it, that they want to get this done,” he said.

Although suicides have been a problem on the bridges for decades, the first bill calling for safety barriers, also sponsored by Solomon and Middletown Senator Lou DiPalma, was not introduced until 2020. It stalled after the pandemic hit.

This time around, lawmakers have held the legislation to study how much it would cost. The price tag worries some, but proponents point to Tampa Bay in Florida, where officials are installing similar safety netting on a bridge for about $3.5 million. 

Another reason why it has taken so long is that the bridges have not been on many people’s radar. Even now, all of the sponsors in the House and Senate, except for Solomon, are from districts near the bridges.

“Anyone in the coastal communities deals with this,” said Ganley. “The legislators from this area seem to get it. People outside of it, don't really always get it.”

Ganley said that’s where Bridging the Gap for Safety and Healing comes in. He and Cotta think that if everyone knew what it is like to “live and breathe” the issue everyday, people would not hesitate to spend whatever amount necessary — no matter where they live.

The Rhode Island Turnpike and Bridge Authority, which operates the three bridges, is not taking a position on the bill. But Executive Director Lori Silveira said RITBA filed a proposal this month to fund a study of the issue.

“Anytime you add anything to a structure that was not built with the intention that that structure would be added to it, there has to be a study to make certain that the bridges remain safe for all of our users of the bridge,” Silveira said. 

Silveira said the study would examine how safety barriers or netting would impact the bridges’ structure, aerodynamics, and load-bearing capacity. The study alone is estimated to cost about $1.5 million, and would take at least one year to complete.

“I offer those factors, you know, as factors — not as obstacles,” Silveira said. “This topic is a painful one for everyone. Believe me, for all of us here, it is a painful subject.”

In the meantime, the Samaritans of Rhode Island still have signs posted at the bridges offering help and resources to those considering suicide. The Bridge Authority is also installing a smart camera system on the Pell Bridge and Mount Hope Bridge that can identify unauthorized pedestrians and send communications to them while help is dispatched.

But the new system does not include additional barriers or deterrents to physically prevent or delay people considering suicide. Ganley says he won’t let up until those are in place.

“You can put men on the moon. You can put a helicopter on Mars,” he said. “Let’s make these bridges safer.”

It’s crucial not only for the lives it would save, Ganley said, but also for the surrounding communities it could help heal.

Antonia Ayres-Brown is the Newport Bureau Reporter for The Public’s Radio. She can be reached at antonia@thepublicsradio.org