D.C.'s Metro System Partners With Suicide-Prevention Groups

By Lisa Rein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

Metro plans to launch a partnership with a coalition of local suicide-prevention groups in an effort to curb a rise in deaths in recent months of people trying to kill themselves by stepping in front of a train, officials said yesterday.

The most recent occurred Thursday afternoon when a train at the Columbia Heights station struck a 15-year-old boy, who was later pronounced dead. He was one of nine people who have tried to kill themselves on Metro's tracks this year; all but two died. On Sunday, a 19-year-old man was fatally struck by a Red Line train at the Gallery Place-Chinatown Station.

CrisisLink, an Arlington County-based group that offers counseling to people in the District and Virginia, approached Metro officials with a proposal for a prevention program after reading media accounts of the suicides, said Marshall Ellis, the group's director of development.

The outreach would include training for Metro employees who are likely to come into contact with someone considering taking his life. Station managers, Metro Transit Police and other Metro staff would be trained to recognize someone in distress. And signs providing information about prevention hotlines could be placed prominently in stations and on trains and buses, Ellis said.

Metro spokeswoman Lisa Farbstein said that the program, which would also include CrisisLink's partners in Montgomery and Prince George's counties, is promising and that Metro is reviewing the proposal.

"Suicide is a topic that is of great concern to us, which is why we're looking to launch a prevention program," she said.

The suicides have confounded the transit agency. Some mental health officials said that talking openly about the problem is essential, but it must be balanced with a recognition that bringing too much public attention to the incidents could lead to more of them.

"We're trying to raise awareness of what the warning signs might be," said Mary Azoy, director of community education and response for CrisisLink. "People can certainly get right up to the point of attempting [suicide] and then consider getting a little support if someone reaches them."

Metro's station platforms are often patrolled by Transit Police, station managers or other workers. But the system does not require a full-time presence on every platform of its 86 stations, making the likelihood of an intervention in a potential suicide daunting.

"We have 86 stations, and some of them have more than one platform," Farbstein said. "We're open long hours. That would require putting hundreds of employees on the platforms."

In a statement released yesterday, the union that represents transit workers called on Metro to increase the Transit Police presence in the system but did not elaborate. Union officials were not available for additional comment.

A rider who seems restless or agitated, who lingers on the station platform and lets several trains go by without getting on, who talks or mutters to himself or leaves belongings on the platform-- these are often signs of someone contemplating suicide, said Azoy and others. Metro employees will be trained to look for such signals.

Other transit systems have used similar prevention programs in recent years, including the Massachusetts Bay Transit Authority in Boston and Toronto Transit in Canada. CrisisLink's hotline number is 800-273-TALK.

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