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On Caltrain Suicides

Originally from SFGate. Photo: Courtesy / Lauren Colman
caltrain car crash

Crossing the River Styx

Around 5pm this past Monday, Caltrain hit a car that was stopped on the tracks. Tragically, a female driver who remained in this car during the collision died. This and subsequent trains were stalled for hours as the police and train operators ran through, sadly, a very common procedure. As if that wasn’t enough, a few hours later that night, there was another fatality. Caltrain had hit a pedestrian.

I was rather deterred from writing about these fatalities the last time it happened a month ago. It seemed a bit morbid to write about because of their recency. But because they seem to happen at least once a month, I think it’s time to re-think the way we think about these events.

I wrote an essay earlier last month about my personal journey through anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts. I feel like I can relate a little to the mindset of what may be running through the mind of a person who is on the train tracks, crossing the river styx from life to death. While life may be in a cloud of uncertainty for the suicidal person, knowing there is certainty of death from a head-on train collision could be solace. There’s no claim that either of these two incidents were successful suicide attempts, but I’ll still take this as an opportunity to think about suicide prevention.

“In the last five years, there has been an average of 14 fatalities a year on the Caltrain right of way. Of these, 90 percent were caused by suicide.”

Official Caltrain PR

An Invocation For Awareness

In the past, I felt insensitive to these events; conditioned to think this is commonplace. There’s an awful joke that I seem to hear myself saying, “Why couldn’t they do it on off hours when I’m not on the train?”. My brain used to filter these stories into soundbites, forgetting that each one of these people had life-long stories with a tragic ending. It doesn’t help that the media reporting these stories only give us soundbites of the reaction from close friends and family spliced in between the press conference from the Palo Alto Police Department and Caltrain officials. There’s much heart in the souls that were lost. I’m reminded of prison inmates who wear numbers, who have lost their identity to this boundless, intangible symbol.

Perhaps I should construct an identity to this woman and all other fatalities. The gravity and weight would be better felt. It’s a thought exercise to remember if I encounter someone displaying suicidal patterns, I should intervene.

The Proactive Good Samaritan

With mental disorders, depression, and people on the verge of suicide on the minds of most Americans, we forget how to intervene when given the opportunity. And suicide prevention isn’t something you’re supposed to learn and shelf. This is a constant reminder there is more than can be done for those still around. Perhaps you know there’s a person behind a mask ready to give up. You have a voice and the power of presence. I may not know this woman, but I sure know that she’s a reminder that I will act more aware of these situations if they should arise amongst my friends. The experience brings back our awareness and we need it most when we have our guards down. Armor up and become the proactive good samaritan.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: (800) 273–8255

National Suicide Prevention Website

Update: 3/20/2015

Caltrain has come out with a response to the recent suicides. You can read it here. I’m going to quote two points that I agree with Caltrain’s proposal for truly making an impact to these tragic events. Thanks to @MarkSimon24 for writing a response I’ve been waiting to read.

Point 4

Engage in a community-wide effort to address underlying mental health issues, suicide prevention and lifting the stigma of seeking help. This is the long solution — it can take decades to change community attitudes about mental health to the point where a troubled individual can openly admit that he or she needs help. And even if, together, we did everything we could and transformed our community, there is no guarantee it will work. Some of the recent cases have involved people who had sought help and had been identified as struggling with mental health issues. To the credit of our community, this mental health/suicide prevention effort is underway and has been for years. There are a number of government-, community-, and school-based organizations throughout San Mateo and Santa Clara counties that are working hard to improve the availability of services and to help guide all of us on how we can work together to reduce the risk and to reach out to one another. That is commendable and we need to consider how we can redouble our efforts, together.

Point 5

Reduce the harmful news media attention to these deaths. There is ample science to establish that giving high profile coverage to these incidents makes the problem worse. There are many professional journalism organizations that actively assert coverage of suicides should be minimal and non-sensational. Every leading suicide-prevention organization issues media guidelines that beg news organizations not to describe the means of the suicides in detail. And yet, as recently as Tuesday’s tragedy, every news story described exactly how the death occurred. The news media has to take some responsibility for the story it is creating, not just covering. This makes some journalists angry. A recent social media assertion along these lines provoked a very angry response from one local news organization. They defend their coverage as newsworthy because of the disruption to the daily commute. Or because the deaths themselves have become newsworthy. But this is something that can be done right now and, evidence suggests, can have a positive impact.

Update: 5/20/2015

KQED wrote an article about suicide prevention on Caltrain Tracks.

Stephanie Weisner runs Wellness and Recovery Services at StarVista, a San Mateo County nonprofit. Weisner credits Caltrain with sending its employees into the community to participate on boards and committees focused on suicide intervention.

“We have monthly meetings,” Weisner explains, “where we all sit around and brainstorm, and we work closely with other counties, including Santa Clara County.”

Does she want more fencing and security cameras? Yes, she says. But she adds that none of that frees the rest of us from having to pay more attention to the people around us: in school, at work, at home.

Weisner says, “People often give out signs that they’re thinking of really hurting themselves, or taking their lives, and there’s things that we can do — reducing the stigma around getting mental health services, and encouraging people to reach out for that.”