Seasonal depression linked to subway suicide attempts

Specialists say building suicide barriers could solve the problem

Between 7 p.m. Nov. 10 and 11 a.m. Nov. 11, the TTC saw three suicide attempts, leaving one person dead at track level. Though suicides are often not reported, these recently publicized  attempts are directly connected to a larger problem.

Ashleigh Dalton, Health Policy Specialist of Toronto Public Health, said the months of November and December are strongly linked to seasonal depression, sometimes better known as Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Though suicide by transit is by no means the most ‘popular’ choice for those attempting suicide, the TTC has put preventative measures in place to combat the issue.

In 2011, Bell Canada partnered with the TTC and established a project called Crisis Link, a service which saw the installation of Bell payphones at track level in every subway station. With Crisis Link came the hope that any persons who were feeling suicidal, or needed immediate attention could pick up the phone and dial for help.

Karen Letofsky, the Executive Director at Distress Centres Toronto fully supports the partnership.

“Crisis Link is a direct link priority line to our phone room, with calls answered in less than 5 rings,” Letofsky said. “We build rapport with the caller, assess them for risk and respond appropriately to the level of risk, ranging from de-escalation, to safety planning, to stopping the subway trains.”

Crisis_Link_Poster
A Crisis Link poster that demonstrates the partnership between the TTC and Bell Canada for suicide prevention. (Crisis_Link_Poster)

Making a phone call from a Crisis Link phone is free, with direct access for anybody who is on the subway platform and at risk. Since their implementation, Letofsky said that suicide numbers have been decreasing via transit, with the exception of seasonal depression.

“No one who has called has continued to make an attempt using the subway,” Letofsky said.

Though the addition of having payphones at track level has been helping, there is recent speculation that more should be done to prevent jumpers. Building prevention barriers at track level has been discussed. However, the cost to build the barriers would be in the millions. Ashleigh Dalton, Health Policy Specialist from Toronto Public Health explained that restricting access to suicide is often an effective suicide prevention strategy.

“Built environment interventions, such as barriers on bridges and subway systems, are universal strategies that target the entire population and provide a way of protecting at-risk individuals who are not in contact with mental health services,” she said. “Barriers have the ability to prevent access to specific lethal means or sites, avert impulsive suicide attempts, and or force people to substitute less lethal means where there is the higher probability of survival and thus opportunity for help.”

Preventative barriers would not only save the lives of at-risk persons, but they would also “reduce the potential negative effects of trauma experienced by TTC staff and transit users,” Letofsky said.

The impact that suicide has on witnesses such as TTC drivers and passengers can be traumatic.

“Suicide attempts and deaths on transit systems have impacts in terms of morbidity and mortality respectively, but there are also broader economic and psychological impacts,” Dalton said. “Suicide incidents on transit systems can affect operational efficiency including service disruptions, delays for commuters. There may also be psychological impacts on drivers, passengers and witnesses, which in the case of workers can involve lost-time from work.”

There is also a stigma surrounding suicide. Many speculate that if an individual is adamant about ending their life, they will find a method, no matter what preventative measures are put in place.

“Limitations of means restriction barriers are possible substitution effects, where people may substitute to other suicide means or sites,” Dalton said. “That is why suicide prevention strategies must be multi-pronged; as no specific intervention will be as effective all on its own.”

The Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention (OASP) is one organization hoping to take a more active approach against suicide. OASP was founded in 2010 and is committed to linking communities and individuals while educating them on suicide prevention techniques.

The organization is run by volunteers, but its President, Tana Nash, said that must change.

“It is compelling for governments to have focused parties with paid people that are dedicated to this cause that can really make a difference,” Nash said. “We cannot expect to move forward with suicide prevention and save lives when we only have volunteers doing this type of work from the side of their desk.”

Because OASP is strictly volunteer-based, Nash argues that the volume of work is too high to put on the shoulders of non-paid employees.

“We simply cannot change and make a difference if we’re doing this as volunteers,” Nash said.