Suicide by subway train has always been an issue kept under wraps by the TTC. At the risk of spawning copycat attempts, even the mainstream media have agreed to a blackout, leading to frequent speculation about train delays and loudspeaker codes. The frequency of these incidents has been whispered about colloquially but without any solid data, and many riders wonder if they should be chilled by a “passenger injury at track level” announcement.
Today, the TTC announced that they have been ordered to release subway statistics under the Municipal Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act—revelations that the Commission had been very strongly resisting. Primarily warning of a “contagion” effect, “particularly as it relates to the method of suicide,” the request to embargo this information was denied. As a result, we now know how many suicides and suicide attempts occurred between 1998 and 2007.
Within that time period, 150 people have ended their lives in a subway station, and there were a hundred unsuccessful attempts. The figures sometimes vary widely, with only eight suicides in 2006, but a whopping twenty-two in 1999 (however, 1999 only saw four failed suicide attempts).
Now that the information has been made public, the TTC has decided to better explain its prevention and support initiatives when it comes to these incidents. Subway drivers who experience a suicide or a suicide attempt are obviously traumatized and may experience long-term depression and psychological strain. The Commission has worked mainly with St. Michael’s Hospital and Trillium Health Centre in developing a support structure for operators, who suffer post-traumatic stress disorder at four times the rate of Toronto’s police officers.
The TTC has also worked with St. Mike’s and Trillium to create of the “Gatekeeper Program,” aimed at helping persons in distress who may be contemplating a jump. The program trains operators, supervisors, and special constables to see potential signs of anxiety—warning signs that someone on a platform may be thinking of taking his or her own life. The program also teaches the proper intervention techniques and ensures that mental health resources are available.
The TTC says that their resistance to publishing this information is “rooted in medical literature,” which suggests that high-profile suicides may plant the suggestion in those with suicidal tendencies, in the same way that the Bloor Viaduct became a notorious location for jumps before the Luminous Veil barrier was constructed. Frequent lead-item news stories, especially those that use the word “suicide” in their headlines, are said to pose difficulty for those exhibiting at-risk behaviour.
For high-profile cases, like the suicide of Jarvis Collegiate teacher David Dewees, or in the case of murder, attempted murder, or murder-suicide, the Commission is a little more open with the media. This particular Freedom of Information request was made by an unnamed member of the media, who was investigating “the adequacy of institutional response to suicide.” The TTC denied the request pursuant to section 13 of the Act, which can prohibit the release of information if it can “seriously threaten the safety or health of an individual,” but the denial was struck down on appeal, with the reasoning that the information was in the greater public interest.
A Clark Institute of Psychiatry report argues that there is a direct correlation between “both nonfictional and fictional reporting and portrayal of suicidal behaviour” and actual self-destructive behaviour. A study by the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention also submitted by the TTC backs up this claim.
The counter-argument put forth by the appellant states that presenting these stories in a non-sensationalistic, responsible manner, “in accordance with expert recommendations,” does not contribute to the likelihood of imitative suicidal behaviour and presented a series of studies supporting that position.
It goes without saying that subway suicides must be reported sensitively, but now that the information is out, it’s still not likely to affect the media blackout in reporting these incidents in the future, nor will it encourage the release of sensitive victim information. The TTC is right in wanting to protect its employees and patrons from trauma, but the onus is on the media to present these stories with extraordinary care.