This is the Hownsgill Viaduct. It’s 55m high, and a little over 200m long. It used to carry the Stanhope & Tyne Railway, but these days carries only the C2C cycle route. Construction was completed in 1858 to Sir Thomas Bouch’s design.
Bouch would later go on to design the Tay Bridge, which collapsed in use. Seventy-five people were killed, and Bouch’s reputation and career were left in tatters. Whilst the Hownsgill Viaduct is still standing, its fate has become almost as grim: it’s one of the UK’s suicide hotspots. In 2011, there was a death every two weeks. In response, Durham County Council is arranging the construction of a 3m high steel tube and cable fence.
Suicide barriers are a knotty public health issue: whilst they seem logically sound, it’s difficult to come up with strong evidence of their effectiveness. The most famous study in this area (and one which came up in my Part A MFPH, as it happens) is of the Bloor Street Viaduct in Toronto – where, actually, fewer suicides occurred each year than at Hownsgill. The study suggests that whilst the Luminous Veil barrier prevented suicides from the viaduct itself, it had no impact on the suicide rate as a whole. Of course, study design is a huge problem in this field, but it remains the case that no published study has shown a reduction in the overall suicide rate as a result of the erection of a barrier.
I guess the only thing we know for certain is that suicide is better tackled through comprehensive and wide-ranging suicide prevention programmes rather than through barriers alone. Psychiatry services often suffer when healthcare resources are tight; yet the biggest cause of death in British men under the age of 35 is suicide. Let’s hope that the vital work of mental health teams isn’t dismissed by anyone as “easy pickings” in the ongoing recession.