History + Community

The Bloor Street Viaduct: The Value of Mental Health Advocacy on our Engineering of Urban Spaces

“Then the new men arrive, the ‘electricals,’ laying grids of wire across the five arches, carrying the exotic three-bowl lights, and on October 18, 1918 it is completed. Lounging in mid-air. The bridge. The bridge. Christened ‘Prince Edward.’ The Bloor Street Viaduct.”

In the Skin of a Lion, p.27

In his 1987 novel In the Skin of a Lion, Michael Ondaatje affectionately recalls the building of East Toronto—and the enchantment that surrounded it. At the forefront of this tale is the Bloor Street Viaduct, an architectural wonder of a bridge extending to the corner of Danforth and Broadview. Since its completion in 1918, the bridge over the Don Valley has served a felicitous and important purpose: to connect our beloved neighbourhood with Toronto’s urban core.

Unfortunately, it has also haunted our city: for many decades, the viaduct remained a tragic symbol of neighbours who slipped through the cracks of our society.

Widely known as Toronto’s “Bridge of Death,” the Bloor Street Viaduct was once one of North America’s most popular suicide spots, second only to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge. By 1997, academics reported that nearly 500 people had jumped from the bridge since its completion, averaging one suicide every 22 days.

Experts such as Michael McCamus, former vice-chairman of the Bloor Viaduct Project Steering Committee, suggested that the viaduct’s literary mythology and folk history had become seductive to Torontonians in distress.

Citing studies on the psychology of crisis, McCamus carefully debunked the misconception that a preventative barrier would only redirect suicides elsewhere. In light of his academic research, which showed that some people in distress associate falling from a grand bridge with a romantic and beautiful death, he argued that the viaduct’s history of sensationalized media coverage posed a unique risk for copycat attempts.

For the vulnerable, these structures can act as “suicide magnets,” exerting a commanding and often fatal power. Simply put, the mass effect is contagious.

McCamus also argued that, rather than being premeditated, many suicides result from temporary crises or delusions. To support his assertions, he referenced a 1978 study from the University of California at Berkeley, where clinical psychologist Richard Seiden interviewed 515 people who had unsuccessfully attempted suicide at the Golden Gate Bridge. Of these survivors, only 5 per cent had turned to another suicide method.

In contrast, 94 per cent were still alive, some more than 25 years after their attempts.

Alongside Al Birney, a vocal lobbyist for the Schizophrenia Society of Ontario, McCamus rallied tirelessly to erect a barrier around the bridge. But their cause was about more than a preventive structure: it concerned addressing the issue of mental health from a community perspective.

Despite varied government objections to erecting the barrier—including cost, aesthetics, and a lack of widespread public support—the two close allies pushed their vision through City Hall.

“It took six years and months, personal visits to all 58 Toronto councillors and the mayor, three votes to the budget committee, three votes at the urban development committee, three votes at the works committee, two votes at the TTC, one vote at Heritage Toronto, one national design competition, two news conferences, 14 radio interviews, 220 newspaper articles, 116 letters to City Hall, 118 faxes, a $3.5million fundraising campaign, and six separate votes at Toronto City Council,” McCamus recalled, at a 2007 memorial for Birney.

Their perseverance paid off. Now, the work of these local heroes serves as a powerful reminder of the most valuable aspect in urban planning––our humanity. Infrastructure that carries the promise of a safer, more inclusive city is worth its weight in gold.

Today, a graceful prevention barrier called the Luminous Veil has redefined the bridge as a safe space while lighting up our city’s skies.

Dereck Revington, an architecture professor at the University of Waterloo, created the winning design back in 1998 for a Toronto City Council competition. Inspired by the caress of wind on water, ten thousand stainless steel rods coalesce to create the illusion of a living and moving thing. Strung like a violin, the layers of slender lines lean out from the waist-high balustrades into the Don Valley, heightening the feeling of adventure.

“I wanted to keep that sense of risk, that sense of the fall,” Revington explains. “You can still be exposed to these extraordinary views of the valley, but the body will be preserved.”

Although construction was completed in 2003, it took another ten years for City Council to bring to life the structure’s name––now an illumination of 35,000 LEDs that react to shifts in wind speed and change their colours according to the season. This harmony creates the illusion of kinetic movement, transforming the viaduct into a 450-metre-long work of public art. The bridge has become a destination in itself, symbolically reborn from a space of darkness to one of light.

Since the barrier’s inception, emerging data suggests that suicide traffic is not simply diverted, but in decline.

Strung like a violin, the layers of slender lines lean out from the waist-high balustrades into the Don Valley, heightening the feeling of adventure.

A 2017 study by Sunnybrook Hospital, published in the journal BMJ Open, shows that city-wide suicide rates have dropped in the long term. This confirms international research supporting the effectiveness of barriers in key locations. In an interview with CTV News, study co-author Dr. Mark Sinyor explains, “there was a decrease in deaths by jumping from bridges in Toronto by roughly the same number that had previously been dying at the Bloor Viaduct, without an increase by other methods or locations.”

As we reflect on the viaduct’s 101-year legacy, our community must remember that suicide is preventable.

Mark Henick, a representative of the Canadian Mental Health Association, encourages the use of signage in affected areas to direct people toward resources, along with a national suicide prevention strategy, heightened media sensitivity, and a more open cultural conversation to break down stigma. “When people get the help that they need,” he says, “recovery is not only possible from mental health problems, it’s likely.”

Moving forward, let us never forget the value of mental health advocacy in our engineering of urban spaces—and may we continue to strive to catch our neighbours before they fall.

Image from Wikimedia Commons—no copyright infringement intended.

Lauren is a freelance editor with a heartfelt dedication to causes that matter. A local history enthusiast, she gives heritage tours at Mackenzie House Museum, the former home of Toronto's firebrand first mayor. In her free time, you can find her volunteering at the Children's Book Bank, experiencing the joys of antique letterpress printing, and wandering the city for the best vegan croissant.

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