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Railway Suicide Prevention


November 12, 2014
By Carla Garret

by Carla Garrett

Trying to save lives – even just one – is driving a new partnership between municipal and CN police services to help prevent railway suicides.

The project is currently being trialed on CN railways in two communities in Ontario – the province noted as having the highest train suicide rates in Canada.

“If we can save one life, we are batting 100. It’s just one more way of prevention and education,” says Insp. Scott McCallum, CN Police – Great Lakes Division South. “We are happy to be a part of the process working with other stakeholders on this worthwhile project.”

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Although still rare, train suicides account for 1.5 percent of all suicides and are traumatic events for all responders.

Sgt. Neil Butler initiated the project in the City of Woodstock with CN Police, Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA) and the OPP following what he describes as a “horrific scene” after a man was struck by a train last summer. It was the same city-centre location as two previous suicides by train.

“I just thought there has to be something more we can do – a better way than just responding after the fact,” says Butler, a veteran officer in Woodstock.

Eleven signs brandishing the number for the local crisis hotline have since been posted along the tracks in the Woodstock. The signs were strategically placed at locations where police have previously responded to calls.

“The signs are just one piece of the puzzle to connect people to an agency,” says Butler. “The signs won’t fix the problem… it’s the support at the other end of the line that will help.”

In Woodstock, emergency services respond to an average of one train suicide every two years. Over the past five years, police have responded to an additional 17 suicide attempts on the tracks that were successfully mediated and talked off the tracks prior to any incident.

Each year, there are about 43 suicides by train across Canada, according to Transport Canada, but there are many more who talk about ending their life in that manner, says Ken Boe, mental health inpatient charge nurse for Woodstock Hospital.

“It’s not always a planned event and seeing one of these signs could be turning point for them,” he says. “It demonstrates another level of commitment to prevent another suicide.”

The project is also being piloted in Kingston. There, hexagon-shaped signs, similar to stop signs, have been erected at eye level along railway tracks.

“I can see this initiative taking off in other areas together with the support of CN Police,” says McCallum. “Mental health is at the forefront nowadays and we are on board with any preventative measure.”

CN operates more than 32,000 km of track in Canada.

Measuring the success of the project could be difficult, but similar programs have proved effective in reducing suicide rates. In Toronto, payphones were installed on subway platforms that directly link to a distress centre counsellor. Suicides declined to 16 from 29 in the year after Crisis Link was implemented.

“We are really hopeful this is going to prevent even one death – if we do, then it’s a success,” says Lynn Wardell, director of crisis/outreach for Oxford County CMHA. “It has to be our hope.”

Easy access is greatly associated with the train suicide rate in Ontario. According to a research project funded by Transport Canada (railwaysuicideprevention.com), two thirds of people commit suicide on railway tracks close to where they live. Therefore, limiting access to tracks could effectively reduce the risk.

In Woodstock, there are nine crossings with relatively easy access to track level. The research results also suggest Ontario is where prevention programs should have the most overall focus and impact.

{Victim Profile}

Implication for prevention

The socio-demographic characteristics of railway suicide victims are similar to people who die by suicide through other means. Therefore, suicide prevention strategies that target the general population should also have an impact on those at risk for railway suicides.

• Railway suicide is a method chosen primarily by males. Therefore suicide prevention strategies should be sensitive to gender and take into account knowledge about men’s use of support and care services.

• People who commit suicide by train often come from underprivileged backgrounds. Strategies based on technological access to support (Internet, cell phones) may not be the best options, since a portion of the target population may not be able to afford access to these technologies.

• At least 20 per cent of people who died by train suicide expressed their intent to commit suicide prior to their death. This suggests that health, mental health and community workers should be better trained to address people who talk about suicidal intentions.

• As is generally the case with suicide victims, mental health issues are very frequent in railway suicide however individuals were often not in care at the time of their death. Access to mental health care and increasing mental health worker’s ability to identify at-risk patients would be promising prevention strategies.

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Pictured are: Lynn Wardell, Director CMHA -Oxford, Janeen Donnor, crisis worker CMHA, Ken Boe, mental health inpatient unit at Woodstock Hospital, Woodstock Police Sgt. Neil Butler and Const. Marc Pontenier, CN Police Service.