METRA seeks to "break silence" on suicide by train

RELATED TOPICS: METRA | CHICAGO | SAFETY | PEOPLE | MIDWEST
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CHICAGO — Officials at Chicago’s Metra say it’s time to tackle a topic that many in the rail industry have long considered taboo: death by train.

The commuter rail agency, in partnership with Amtrak and Chicago-area safety advocates, sponsored a daylong symposium entitled “Breaking the Silence.” The session Wednesday at Chicago Union Station was intended to coordinate a strategy to prevent suicides along the tracks.

The agency gathered nearly 100 mental health experts and community members to help in its campaign to install suicide prevention signs along its 11 lines by the end of the year.

Metra Board Chairman Norman Carlson said the agency wanted to develop a collaborative regional strategy to address the problem.

The primary goal “is saving human lives,” Carlson said. “That is our principal objective.”

The event coincided with Rail Safety Week. September is also National Suicide Prevention Awareness month.

Metra announced the campaign in July after a spate of suicides in the Chicago area. So far this year, Metra said it has tallied 21 suicides or suspected suicides, more than in each of the previous five years.

The problem of suicide by train is particularly acute in the Chicago area, experts say, because the city is the nation’s railroad hub, served by six Class I railroads and Amtrak. Metra itself runs more than 700 trains a day.

The agency said it has so far trained more than 700 engineers, conductors and other employees to recognize individuals in despair and to intervene.

Although this program has been successful, Carlson said the agency needed to do more to “break the silence” surrounding the topic. Many in the industry believe media attention to the topic — even discussing prevention efforts — leads to suicide “copycatting.”

Much of the symposium focused on the message Metra intends to place on the signs installed at its 241 stations.

Metra wants to avoid even using the word “suicide,” said Hilary Konczal, chief safety and environmental officer.

Instead, he said, Metra wants to promote a broader message: that help for distress, depression, or mental illness is available and is easy as a phone call away.

Other rail agencies in the U.S. and abroad have posted such signs. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority partners with Samaritans Inc. of Boston with signs that say, “You Are Not Alone” with a helpline number.

The Rotary Club in suburban Naperville, Ill., has already posted similar signs at its Metra station.

“We want to ensure that the sign has a message of hope,” Konczal said. “Rather than hopelessness.”
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