Paige Hunter 'delighted' after backing to make messages of hope on Sunderland bridges permanent
A bid to install permanent ‘messages of hope’ on city bridges to help prevent suicides is set to go ahead after winning backing from councillors.
The plans were inspired by Sunderland teenager, Paige Hunter, who was praised by Northumbria Police last year for reaching out to those in despair.
This included dozens of uplifting notes attached to posts and railings on the Wearmouth Bridge reminding people that they’re not alone.
Now a bid to make the messages a permanent fixture won the backing of Sunderland City Council after a motion put to all councillors was voted through.
Speaking after the meeting on June 19, Paige Hunter, 19, said she was “grateful and delighted” with the decision.
Speaking after the meeting, she said: “When I started the notes of hope on the Wearmouth Bridge people messaged me telling me how much they have been helped by those notes and how they had saved them from attempting.
“However, these notes only lasted two weeks due to weather. Having them up permanently will help save more lives.
“It’s so overwhelming to know my work will now be made permanent. I’m thankful for all those that made this happen.”
Helping people ‘who think the world has given up on them’
The signs will be designed in collaboration with the community and aim to encourage those at risk of taking their own life to reconsider and seek support.
Coun Dominic McDonough, who launched the motion, said the signs could help people “who think the world has given up on them.”
The councillor currently works for charity If You Care Share Foundation, which focuses on suicide prevention, intervention and supporting the bereaved.
In an emotional speech, he shared his own experience of losing a loved one and the importance of prevention.
“The North East has the highest rate of suicide in the country and suicide continues to be the biggest killer of men under 50, suicide is also now the biggest killer of young people under 25,” he said.
“Every single suicide is a tragedy, it’s a bomb that destroys not just one life but the lives of everyone who is connected with the person who is lost.
“I myself have lost a loved one to suicide and I know that others in this chamber have experienced similar tragedies.
“The most tragic thing is that suicide is preventable and these lives can be saved.”
Reducing suicides through messages of support
During the speech, councillors heard the story of Kevin Hines, who survived jumping from the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
As a result of campaigning since the incident, messages of hope were installed on the bridge which, Coun McDonough said, “reduced suicides considerably.”
In the case of Sunderland, the councillor added, Paige Hunter’s heartfelt messages have already had a similar impact.
“Her messages have already saved the lives of at least 21 people but the signs quickly become tatty and get destroyed by the elements,” he said.
“Providing permanent signs on our bridges would alleviate this problem.
“Tonight we can take a step forward in ensuring that signs will always be there offering messages of hope to those who think that the world has given up on them and encouraging them to get the support they need.
“We will be the first local authority in the UK to do this and through working with the community we can ensure that the signs are personal and do not lose their impact.”
Conservative councillors called for several bridges to be included – from the Northern Spire, Wearmouth Bridge and Queen Alexandra Bridge to the A19 Bridge towards Washington.
The causes of suicide
While welcoming the scheme, some Labour councillors said a wider approach was needed to tackle the causes of suicide.
Coun Kelly Chequer, who works as a mental health nurse, said unemployment and debt often left people at “rock bottom”.
She noted that university studies, the National Institute for Health Research and Mind had identified links between suicide and austerity.
“Here in Sunderland, where residents have often been at the sharp end of these cuts, we have also seen rises in the number of people who feel that they have no way out,” she said.
“This is what has brought us to where we are today, needing to provide messages of hope on a bridge instead of instilling hope in people long before they get to this state of desperation and absolute last resort.”
She added: “This is a sad subject to discuss but it is vitally important we have these conversations and we owe it to our residents to have these exchanges.
“Whilst inarguably positive, this notice of motion falls short of tackling the real issue, what is needed is working commitments from all parties in this room.
“This is about coming together to find a solution that underpins this problem so people don’t ever get to that bridge.”
Bridge suicides make up small percentage of those who take their own lives in Sunderland
Coun Dr Geoff Walker, cabinet member for Health and Social Care, supported the aims of the motion but noted it lacked detail about mental health prevention.
The councillor added only 8% of suicides in Sunderland over the last three years included people falling from a bridge – around five people.
And over the same period, he said, the suicide rate was lower than the North East average.
Councillors were told existing policies were in place to prevent suicide with some evidence that Samaritans signs can reduce police call-outs.
Coun Dr Walker added it was important to get the bridge messages right, as in some cases they could “advertise the lethal potential of the site to vulnerable individuals.”
He also offered an invitation to Conservatives to work together with the council’s Health and Wellbeing Board, Sunderland Clinical Commissioning Group and other key partners on the project.
Coun McDonough said he was happy to do so, but warned that causes of suicide were complex – with the majority of victims having no history of mental health issues.
Leader of the Liberal Democrat group, Coun Niall Hodson, also agreed care should be taken around the content of the permanent messages.
“It would be very hard to get this right and will require a lot of joint working but I take that on board,” he said.
“I hope we can all work together to make sure it’s something that’s effective and will actually be beneficial.”
Following debate, the motion received unanimous backing from councillors which will start the process of designing and creating the signs.