Edmonton High Level Bridge Figures Spark Discussion About Mental Health

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EDMONTON — An official with the Canadian Mental Health Association is hoping strange, human-shaped figures that were placed on an Edmonton bridge's controversial suicide prevention barriers spark a discussion about mental health.

But Ione Challborn said the message the sculptures sent is confusing, and since there's no word on who put them up, there's no way to understand the motive.

"I know there has been reaction to the barriers. People have been concerned that the walkways are not as wide as they were for cyclists and pedestrians,'' said Challborn, the executive director with the association's branch in Edmonton.

"If that installation was to draw attention to that argument, that would distress me because I think the barriers are in place to protect lives.''

"... I think the barriers are in place to protect lives."

The life-sized figures made from packing tape mysteriously appeared on the High Level Bridge on Sunday, and were posed as though they were scaling the recently installed barriers.

The city, which considered the sculptures vandalism, pulled them down within hours.

The sculptures initially shocked Dan Klemke, an advocate for the barriers whose wife committed suicide from the bridge in 2013.

"If it was a joke, it's pretty sick, I think. If it was an artistic statement, well, art is in the eye of the beholder, but my opinion is it would be in bad taste,'' Klemke said, although his view softened when he considered another possibility.

"If it was a memorial ... then, you know, everybody grieves in their own way and at their own pace. I've learned to give people a lot of latitude in that process.''

Controversial barriers

The barriers have been controversial. While they were erected due to the number of people who have killed themselves by jumping off the bridge, they have narrowed the pathways shared by pedestrians and cyclists.

Critics also claim they're easy to get around and won't prevent a determined person from committing suicide.

Edmonton Mayor Don Iveson, an avid cyclist, was drawn into defending the barriers recently both online and in council meetings.

"This whole issue has been difficult for me as I know three people who've taken their own lives on the bridge,'' Iveson wrote in a blog post last month.

high level bridge sculpture
A human-like figure made of tape hangs from a safety fence on High Level Bridge in Edmonton on Sunday. (Photo: Rob Drinkwater/CP)

The city said there were nine incidents of suicide, attempted suicide or sudden death at the High Level Bridge between 2008 and 2012. The city also said the emergency phones that were installed on the bridge to prevent suicides have been used 44 times since June.

Numerous websites post videos on how to make human tape sculptures, and a news report from 2012 said an Ontario artist who was visiting Edmonton had placed some in the city's downtown with love letters attached.

Artists have also tackled the issue of suicide on the bridge before. A short film, "The High Level Bridge,'' was an official selection at numerous film festivals, including Sundance and Toronto in 2010 and 2011, and dealt with suicide.

Watch the short film "The High Level Bridge":

The film concluded with the camera running after being dropped from the bridge and smashing onto the frozen river below.

Challborn said that whoever placed the sculptures on the bridge on Sunday went to a lot of work.

"Where I hope the conversation goes is deep compassion for people affected by suicide and advocacy for suicide awareness and support,'' Challborn said.

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