Toronto’s transit agency is improving its anti-suicide efforts with numerous ideas that range from enlisting the public to keep watch for distressed people to bolstering passengers’ moods by modifying stations in a bid to reverse a worsening string of tragedies.
Suicides have been occurring on the subway system since the first stretch of the line opened in 1954, but the numbers have taken an alarming turn. Toronto Transit Commission data show that two years from this past decade were the worst since the 1980s for suicide incidents, a term that encompasses both attempted and completed suicides. And the longer-term pattern is raising concerns at the agency.
“With our analysis, it’s on a five-year trend, and we’ve had a significant, statistically significant, upward trend,” said Christine Triggs, safety specialist at the TTC. “So that’s why we’re trying to reboot some of our initiatives to see, is there something else we can do?”
The reason for the increase in the numbers in Toronto was not immediately clear. There have been no comparable increases in Montreal or Vancouver, the other Canadian cities with major transit systems.
The TTC doesn’t have enough information about the people involved in these incidents to explore the question of why they chose this method. Psychological autopsies, which would try to explain why these people sought to die by suicide, are not conducted by either the coroner’s office or Toronto Public Health.
Officials at the TTC have long believed that the only way to prevent suicide is to install a physical separation between platform and tracks, an expensive idea that has received some political backing but no funding. In the meantime, to tackle the rising toll on its subway, the agency is looking at a range of measures.
Some of the more ambitious ideas, including the possibility of a lifting cable-barrier to keep people off the track, are at an early exploratory stage and would carry additional costs that would have to be approved by the agency’s governance board. But other elements could be covered by the existing budget and implemented this year.
Inexpensive physical changes planned for subway stations include modifying them to feature blue lights and perhaps adding soothing artwork, tactics that some research has suggested show promise in reducing suicide. The current posters advertising a suicide hotline will be refreshed and perhaps have their colour changed, helping to bring their message back to the public’s attention.
The agency also wants to borrow an idea from Samaritans, an NGO in Britain, which encourages members of the public to approach someone who appears distressed. The same group has mental-health volunteers go to stations where suicides have occurred, in the hopes of assisting distressed onlookers, an idea the TTC wants to adopt.
Brian Mishara, a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and founder of CRISE, the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia, was unconvinced by some of the TTC’s ideas for tackling the problem, noting that evidence for the benefits of blue lights is inconclusive. But he believes human intervention can have a major effect on suicidal people.