To many of us, the Penobscot Narrows Bridge is a thing of architectural beauty. To those in mental and emotional pain, its relatively low, unrestricted sides are a quick and easy means to a dark end.

Suicide is on the rise in Maine and across the country. In 2020 — the latest year for which data is available — it ranked 12th among leading causes of death in our state.

A rough count indicates that on average, since the bridge opened in December 2006, one person per year has jumped the 135 feet to die in river below. This year, William Burton, 66, of Stockton Springs is believed to have died when he jumped in July. On Nov. 26, hikers on Sears Island found the body of college student Chase Dmuchowsky, 21, who jumped Oct. 24.

Following the first six suicides from the bridge, a measure in March 2014 attempted to address the problem. Introduced by then-Rep. Joseph Brooks of Winterport, the emergency bill garnered support from the parents of a 25-year-old Eddington man who committed suicide on the bridge a year earlier. It also was backed by the National Association on Mental Illness. But the bill died in committee when lawmakers said they didn’t have enough time to review the proposal thoroughly.

When then-Rep. Karl Ward of Dedham inquired in 2017, he found that lawmakers on the joint Transportation Committee thought a suicide-prevention fence on the bridge would be too expensive, ineffective and an eyesore. At that time, the cost of erecting preventive fencing was estimated at $500,000 to $1 million.

It is difficult to ascertain precisely how many have jumped to their deaths from the bridge — apparently no single state or local agency keeps track. Greg Marley, a licensed clinical social worker and director of suicide prevention at the National Alliance for Mental Illness in Augusta, has said the Penobscot Narrows Bridge is the most-used for that purpose.

While we can only speculate about jumpers’ motivations, the fact that authorities find their cars left running in the middle of the span suggests that the drivers are jumping on impulse. Protective fencing certainly would thwart those sudden deadly urges.

A Republican Journal story in May — after sheriff’s deputies foiled a suicide attempt on the bridge — cited a 2007 report by researcher Andrew Pelletier that showed safety fences work. Pelletier looked at suicides on Memorial Bridge in Augusta during a 22-year period before and after installation of an 11-foot-high safety fence in June 1983, and concluded the barrier was effective in preventing people from jumping.

The 100-foot-high Augusta bridge had a total of 14 suicides before the safety fence was installed. None have occurred since the fence went up.

As for those who believe desperate people will simply choose another means, Pelletier’s report also found there was no evidence showing suicidal individuals sought alternative sites for jumping. In fact, mental health professionals say that individuals contemplating suicide have a specific method in mind and, when thwarted, tend to abandon their plans.

According to a Portland Press Herald editorial in 2014 urging passage of Brooks’ ill-fated emergency bill, psychologist Richard Seiden interviewed 515 people whom police had stopped from jumping off San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge between 1937 and 1971. (That bridge has no suicide barrier.) Years later, according to Seiden, 94% of those who had wanted to kill themselves either were still alive or had died of natural causes.

There’s a sad irony in Penobscot Narrows bridge history: Because the predecessor Waldo-Hancock Bridge had been the scene of so many suicides, Maine DOT initially considered adding a fence or a separated pedestrian walkway to plans for the new span — but in the end decided against it.

It’s well past time to rectify that error. We engineer our roads with guardrails and medians for safety; why would we not similarly build protective fencing into our bridges? The need for a deterrent on the deadly Penobscot Narrows Bridge couldn’t be clearer. As the 131st Legislature opens its session this week, we urge lawmakers to adopt emergency legislation to that end. Stop this suicide by bridge.