UK rail groups encourage 'small talk' to prevent rail suicides

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A promotional photo from a Samaritans (U.K.) program on preventing suicides on or near railroads.

LONDON — A new suicide prevention campaign Small Talk Saves Lives aims to give travelers on Britain’s railways the confidence to act if they notice someone who may be at risk of suicide on or around the rail network. By highlighting that suicidal thoughts can be temporary and interrupted with something as simple as a question, the campaign aims to give the public the tools to spot a potentially vulnerable person, start a conversation with them, and help save a life.

Small Talk Saves Lives has been launched by 24-hour nationwide helpline Samaritans, British Transport Police, track operator Network Rail, and the train operating companies.

Latest official figures from the U.K.’s Office of Rail and Road show that there were 273 suicides or suspected suicide fatalities on Britain’s rail network in 2016 to 2017. These were broken down into 237 on mainline routes and 36 on London Underground routes.

The multi-media campaign is fronted by a short film concentrating on the story of a woman who felt suicidal and planned to take her life on the railways. Unsuspecting passengers on a train platform initially think a station announcer is warning them of delays due to a suicide on the line, only to find out that they are listening to her story of hope and recovery. The video uses an assumed name and an actress plays her part.

"Sarah Wilson" says: “Someone showing that they cared about me helped to interrupt my suicidal thoughts and that gave them time to subside. The more that people understand that suicide is preventable, the better.”

Willing to act
Small Talk Saves Lives has been developed after research showed passengers have a key role to play in suicide prevention. The majority is willing to act but many felt they needed guidance on how to help and reassurance they wouldn’t ‘make things worse. The campaign encourages passengers to notice what may be warning signs such as a person standing alone and isolated, looking distant or withdrawn, staying on the platform a long time without boarding a train or displaying something out of the ordinary in their behavior or appearance. There is no single sign or combination of behaviors that mean a person is suicidal but, if something doesn’t feel right, the message is to act.

The campaign follows a recent Samaritans’ initiative to place their helpline number at the end of station platforms, the most common location of suicides, which they are rolling out throughout the U.K.

The campaign also draws on insights from successful interventions made by some of the 16,000 rail staff and transport police who have been trained by Samaritans in suicide prevention.

Different courses of action are suggested, depending on the situation and the response. They range from approaching the person and asking them a question to distract them from their thoughts, alerting a member of rail staff, or calling the police on the U.K.'s emergency telephone number.

Ian Stevens from Network Rail, who manages the suicide prevention program on behalf of the rail industry, says: “Given that nearly five million journeys are made by train every day, we are asking for passengers to work alongside our staff as the eyes and ears of the railway, helping us to keep everybody safe."
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