Barriers will deter only impulse subway suicides

Mahnoor Yawar
Guest Columnist

The TTC has been notoriously reticent about releasing data on suicide attempts – a blackout it introduced in the ‘70s to deter copycat jumpers from taking their lives. Nevertheless, we know that up until August in Toronto this year, 21 people had actively attempted suicide in the subway, eight of whom succeeded.

This month alone, three people attempted suicide by jumping in front of a TTC train within a single 16-hour period. One of these attempts resulted in a fatality.

A subsequent report by the city’s public health department has urged the development of a long-proposed platform-edge barrier system that would leave the rails unexposed to people who jump, fall or are pushed in front of oncoming trains.

The cost of implementing such a system? Anywhere between $5- and $10-million dollars per station. This is not including the need for driverless trains, which would automatically align train doors with barrier doors at each station. The absence of drivers would greatly reduce operating costs, but try telling that to union members who will only see the potential for hundreds of jobs cut.

Although the barrier plan has been approved by the TTC in principle since 2010, the cash-strapped organization has been unable to implement any major changes due to expensive upgrades and signal replacements, as well as pre-existing capacity issues.

The major question that arises with this debate is whether the system is worth its cost. The barriers have been installed to great success in transit systems for 35 cities around the world, reducing fatality and accident numbers drastically, even in cases where they are only present at a few stations.

The Metro system in Dubai, my hometown, takes great pride in its barrier system. In a country where unbounded labour conditions are the leading cause of mental distress for many of the immigrant population, the lack of access to one such means of suicide spells a media relations success for transit authorities.

Here’s what the statistics don’t show – the number of laborers who end their lives by walking right into oncoming traffic on the highways instead.

Public transit is already far from the most common method of suicide in Toronto. According to statistics, 7.7 per cent of victims between 1998 and 2011 attempted suicide by jumping or lying in front of trains or cars. Moves to upgrade entire stations may not be enough to affect overall suicide rates where people are already choosing different ways to kill themselves.

Yet psychologists believe that the mere presence of such deterrents can discourage jumpers from taking their lives. This is a fair estimate of how “impulse jumpers” – or people suffering from acute distress after a major setback – may respond to such measures. They do not plan to kill themselves – the apparent convenience of a quick death becomes their final, metaphorical push out of a crisis.

Unfortunately, chronic depression doesn’t work that way. For people who live inside the cloud of their mind, there is no perspective on the matter. Most of these people make repeat attempts – whether here or elsewhere.

That said, the Public Health report is correct in classifying suicide as “one of the most important and least talked about population health issues” in Toronto. No one method being blocked is ever going to be a cure-all for suicide, but a combination of steps may well reduce numbers. The Crisis Link system, providing hot line help phones on subway platforms, was renewed just last year, a presence that has proven to be effective in reducing numbers on its own.

When all is said and done, jumping in front of a train is a horrible way to go.

Less than two thirds of people succeed in their attempts, usually by massive trauma to the head or chest or electrocution. Survivors are normally left with permanent injuries, from organ damage to amputations, adding to whatever distress led them to jump in the first place.

TTC drivers who witness these attempts are four times as likely to suffer from extensive PTSD as the average person. Every incident takes upwards of an hour to clear, shutting down an already overburdened subway system.

The huge burden that TTC jumpers place on the infrastructure is enough reason to spend the money to prevent them from doing so. As long as we accept that it may not be enough.