Metro plans program to counter 'surge' in suicides

By Ann Scott Tyson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 17, 2010

Metro plans to implement a $250,000 suicide prevention program aimed at countering what officials describe as a "surge" in suicides in the system since July 2009.

The number of people committing suicide in the Metro system, mainly by jumping onto the tracks in front of trains, has roughly doubled in the past year, compared with previous years, according to Metro data.

There were five in 2008, 11 in 2009 and four this year, compared with five in 2008, said Lisa Cooper-Lucas, Metro's manager of medical services. From 2000 to 2007, there were about three or four suicides a year, she said at a meeting of a Metro board of directors committee Thursday.

The program, which will go before the full Metro board for approval at the end of this month, would allow Metro to award a contract for a suicide prevention-training program for one year, with two additional years for completing and expanding the program, said Gary W. Baldwin, Metro's chief of human relations.

In a first phase starting in November, the program would train 20 Metro employees to teach bus drivers, train operators and station managers how to spot suicidal people and stop them from taking their lives, Baldwin said.

"This is to position key members of the Metro staff, particularly frontline personnel . . . to intervene when we see those kinds of behaviors," Baldwin said. Metro employees have not had suicide prevention training yet, he said.

Metro employees would not be taught to physically restrain people contemplating or attempting suicide, but they would be instructed on how to identify and talk with them and then call on a local crisis response team if necessary.

A second phase, starting in December, would aim to educate riders about the risk of suicide on the system, so that people might intervene. It makes sense to involve the public because suicides on Metro are traumatic for the entire community, Cooper-Lucas said. "It's devastating not only to the families, but the people on the platform, the station managers, the train operators and their families," she said.

In most cases, people contemplating suicide will admit their intentions, and suicides are often not spontaneous, she said.

"When people say [a suicide] came out of nowhere, that's not true. Usually people will plan," said Cooper-Lucas. Videos have revealed that people who are contemplating suicide often visit the place where they intend to take their lives in the days and weeks before they act, she said. "In some cases, they figure out a place to stand where they can't be seen," she said.

Metro is modeling its program to a degree after a program designed by the Toronto subway system, which had a "staggering problem" with suicides a few years ago, said Christopher Zimmerman, a board member from Arlington County.

The Toronto system is moving to more aggressive measures early next year with a plan to place barriers in the system to prevent suicides and accidents, Cooper-Lucas said. Transit agencies in London and Paris have also moved to install barriers.

Board members said that Metro is likely to consider platform barriers in the future but that the installation cost is prohibitive.

"In the future, that is the direction we are going to go, but we also recognize it is a very huge capital investment, so that is not happening anytime soon," Zimmerman said.

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