How Metrolinx is Prioritizing Mental Health
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How Metrolinx is Prioritizing Mental Health

In 2015, Metrolinx made strides to help commuters in distress along GO routes.

The sign catches me off guard when I first see it.

It is 6:30 a.m. and my body is acting on commuter autopilot: push this door, tap this card, get to your usual seat for the ride along the Lakeshore West GO Train line, and nap as much as possible.

The sights and sounds of my commute have become so routine that I nearly trip when I spot a new sign screwed to a column along my usual pathway down the train platform.

“Need to talk? We’re here,” the white and purple poster reads, with the number for a toll-free, 24-hour mental health helpline to call.

Photo by Samantha Sobolewski.

It’s one of 800 signs that were installed at various platforms, stations, and crossings across the entire GO Transit network over the past year, all part of an initiative to open up dialogue among commuters and help those in need. They are similar to the TTC’s Crisis Link poster and payphone program, implemented in 2011.

The signs were first installed in April 2015 as a partnership between Metrolinx and ConnexOntario, a Government of Ontario health services information agency that provides free, confidential support for people experiencing problems with alcohol and drugs, mental health, or gambling. They provide three different helpline numbers for Ontarians to call, such as the mental health one posted across the GO system.

The signs didn’t come about due to any spike in train suicides or accidents. Instead, Metrolinx says the initiative began to take on a leadership role among Canadian freight and commuter rail industries.

“Metrolinx recognizes that mental health is a serious issue,” said media spokesperson Kim Johnson in an email. “We felt it was the right thing to do.”

To date, there are 14 calls on record that have been made specifically from GO Transit stations or platforms since June 2015, a data request from ConnexOntario revealed.

By comparison, the same data request showed that in the month of June alone, the agency received a total of 3,616 calls to the ConnexOntario’s Mental Health Helpline made from locations across the province.

The number of calls from stations may seem low. But ConnexOntario says that their data on calls made from station tracks is quite limited, as operators are often more concerned with the caller than the geographical location of the calls.

“If callers are in crisis, our phone staff become less focused on the details of the call, and more focused on the caller themselves,” said Kirc Cobb, a data manager with ConnexOntario.

Metrolinx can also cite at least one instance where police were able to help an individual on the tracks as a result of a person in distress calling the helpline.

On average, about 43 people in Canada annually die by suicide via railways, according to a 2013 study released by the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia at the Universite du Montreal à Quebec. The same research found 22 per cent of individuals suffered from a diagnosed mental illness at the time of death, a number that is “probably underestimated” since mental health data is not systemically collected.

Metrolinx says that numbers relating to incidents along train tracks have remained the same since installation.

Seeing those white and purple signs is now a fixture of my commute—a reminder that even in transit, mental health has been prioritized.