Page last updated at 11:30 GMT, Thursday, 14 January 2010

Can railway suicides be cut?


By Tom Geoghegan
BBC News Magazine

Any suicide is tragic, but the 200 a year that happen on the railways are particularly shocking. The first national strategy in dealing with them hopes to cut the number by a fifth. But can people who want to end their own lives in this way really be helped?

It was morning rush-hour, so the platform was busy and Penny was one of many people waiting for the Edinburgh train.

As the Intercity 125 drew into the station, she jumped in front of it.

"It's strange, but it was as if I went into it," she says, recalling those moments 14 years ago. "It all went black and I remember waking up underneath it.

"It was dark and I thought 'Is this it? Am I dead?' Then I heard a Tannoy and some voices, and I could feel diesel dripping on my face.

Samaritans provides emotional support, 24 hours a day for people who are experiencing feelings of distress or thoughts of suicide

Its number is 08457 90 90 90

"I don't remember anything else, I had passed out and I came round in hospital. But when I did, there was no relief. I thought: 'I can't even do that right.'"

Penny had escaped major injury, apart from five stitches on the back of her head, because she had fallen entirely beneath the train.

Her state of mind that day was divorced from reality, she says. She had a husband she loved, whom she had said goodbye to in the normal way. But work-related stress and the loss of her grandmother had induced her third mental breakdown in 10 years.

"I can see the train coming, clear as day," she says, thinking back to the day she tried to take her life. "But how I got there I don't know. It's almost like I was in a trance.

"I already thought I was dead and I thought I wanted to see my gran. Even talking about it now, I'm thinking it sounds odd."

'No way back'

Unlike other ways that people choose to end their own life, railway suicides endanger and traumatise other people, notably train drivers and railway staff. But to condemn it as "selfish", as some do, annoys Penny, who asked for her real name not to be used.

Training for rail and train company staff in identifying and intervention
Call-out service whereby staff from 202 Samaritans branches nationwide are ready to attend stations in emergencies
National communications campaigns increasing awareness of Samaritans' services
Working with the media to ensure responsible reporting, reducing the likelihood of copycat suicides

"They just don't understand. You don't wake up one morning and say: 'Today, I'm going to do that' They are ill. People who choose this method, it's not a cry for help, they've reached the absolute bottom.

"Part of me somewhere thought that it's a sure-fire method. Usually there's no coming back."

For the rail industry, suicides are a commercial headache. Network Rail has to compensate train operating companies for delays and it estimates that suicides cost it £15m a year in this respect. In partnership with the Samaritans, it has invested £5m in the country's first national programme in trying to address it.

The money will be spent on a number of measures, including training railway staff in how to spot people on platforms who may be contemplating suicide and how to talk to them.

There will also be guidance to the media about reporting incidents in a way that does not prompt copy-cat attempts. For instance, giving too much information about a victim can lead others to identify with him or her.

"There are about 200 suicides per year on the railways," says Rachel Kirby-Rider of the Samaritans. "But in terms of the cost and emotional impact, it's much higher for suicides on the railways than other forms of suicide, because of the effect on witnesses. All suicides are tragic but some train drivers never go back to work afterwards.

Feelings of wanting to kill oneself can come in waves and usually last half-an-hour, often triggered by alcohol
These thoughts are not necessarily permanent, and may never return
So reducing opportunity in that half-hour - because the law prevents a person buying enough pills, for instance - is key to saving lives
Source: Stephen Palmer, author of Suicide: Strategies and Interventions for Reduction and Prevention

"Many people come across suicides on the railway and get very frustrated because they can't get to their meeting because the train is delayed, but there's a lack of understanding why the person has taken their own life."

More research is needed into why people would choose this method above others, say Ms Kirby-Rider, but the common profile is middle-aged men who are unemployed or struggling financially, she says. And there are more incidents in areas of social deprivation.

She believes that if people thinking about throwing themselves under a train can get to the Samaritans - maybe referred by a vigilant member of rail staff or because a poster on a platform tells them that help is available - then their chances of recovery are greatly increased.

Reducing opportunities for people to take their own life can dissuade them from doing so, she says. Specific measures in prisons and psychiatric services have helped to bring the national suicide rate down, although it increased last year, perhaps due to the economic difficulties.

Limiting the number of aspirins available in a packet to 16, in 1998, led to a fall in fatal overdoses by a fifth in the following year.

The daredevil and violent element of railway suicide may appeal to people who feel desperate about their life, because it conjures up an illusion of control and self assertion
Emmy van Deurzen

And according to one study, there was a fall in suicide by car exhaust asphyxiation in all age and gender groups, a trend most marked after 1993, when catalytic converters reduced the toxicity of exhaust fumes. "This shows that measures can be taken," says Ms Kirby-Rider. "What we are planning won't eradicate railway suicides but we are hoping for a 20% reduction in five years."

So why do some people choose to end their life in this way?

Railway suicide is a violent method of choice, especially for younger men, who falsely believe that it is a fast, painless, foolproof way to end one's life, says psychotherapist and counselling psychologist Prof Emmy van Deurzen.

"They often get this wrong idea from media reports or fiction and there is higher incidence of railway suicides after a case has been publicised or fictionalised.

"There is a 10% survival rate of these attempts, which though low, is still considerable, especially since it usually leads to severe and incapacitating injuries."

Graphs of suicide rates

There is very little research on the motivations and states of mind of those who have not succeeded or those who have contemplated killing themselves in this way, she says.

"The daredevil and violent element of railway suicide may appeal to people who feel desperate about their life, because it conjures up an illusion of control and self assertion.

"Even the idea of having an impact on rail transport and the routines of others may be somewhat appealing and may involve a fantasy of revenge on society.

"Those who have contemplated killing themselves in this way mention awareness of the potential long-term damage to others as a factor in stopping them."

This suggests we need better research, both on people's motivations for choosing this method of suicide and on the reasons for which they ultimately abandon the idea, she says. This would help us providing better support to these people and to prevent more of these catastrophic suicides.

A suicide prevention strategy was published in 2007
In the following two years, suicides fell by a third
Staff were trained in spotting warning signs and understanding at-risk prisoners
About 1,500 prisoners are subject to enhanced care
Source: Prison Service

Penny's experience shows that people who have hit rock bottom can still fully recover, and she thinks the best way to tackle the problem would be to chip away at the stigma of mental illness, so people would be more likely to seek help.

After being pulled out from under the train, she was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder and spent two months in hospital for her mental illness.

She never returned to her old workplace and the birth of her first child three years later was a major step on the road to recovery. This happy, confident woman bears no resemblance to the figure on the railway platform all those years ago.

"Now I've turned my life around and have two great kids and a happy marriage. I'm horrified now, thinking about it, because I loved my husband and my parents."

A selection of your comments appears below.

I was a train driver many years ago and was unfortunately driving a train when a woman holding an infant stood on the track in front of me while travelling at very high speed. I will never forget that awful day, the things I saw and the feeling of helplessness in the seconds before impact. The impact on my life were dramatic with a day not passing when I reliving what happened. Counselling can never alter what happened
John, York

I contemplated suicide two years ago, lost my good job, family life was tough with an unwell relative and things just seemed tough and there was no way out. At Glasgow Queen Street, my train home pulled in, and the temptation to jump in front of it was high, but I didn't. I knew it would be a quick end but at the same time I knew I was too young to die so thought the better of it. Today I realise more then ever that was the right thing to do, I have good friends, good family and a job that I like. So don't do it, things can always get better.
Steve Taylor, Scotland

Having held a train guard who broke down in tears in my arms after someone threw themselves in front of the train he was working on and also comforted a student who came home to find a house-mate had hanged himself, I do hope that anyone contemplating taking their own life does not do so... anywhere. Other people will always be affected by what appears to be the ultimate selfishness of putting your own unhappiness before anything else. Seek help: it's there from the Samaritans even if you have no friends or feel you cannot turn to them. Stay alive - tomorrow will be better.
Megan, Cheshire UK

Limiting the ways in which a person can take their own life so that the statistics look better is not tackling the problem. All this does is force people to take more risky options when attempting to kill themselves. Recently I read an interview with the founder of Dignitas. I agreed with his argument that if a person cannot be swayed from suicide (which he always attempts in every case) then it's got to be better that they're allowed to perform the action in a safe, controlled environment with expert guidance than be forced to perform a DIY death, with all the risks of horrific injury that come with it. This approach would also save the authorities millions of pounds in emergency response and after-care.
Mark Corrigan, Peterborough

Working within the railway industry I have been unfortunate enough to witness the aftermath of such events. There has been various studies into the reasons why rail is chosen by suicidal people. I particularly picked up on the assumption that it is an off-the-cuff decision as trains approach and that people consider their lives whilst travelling alone. This fits very well with the 30 minute suicidal "wave" mentioned in this article. I applaud Network Rail for highlighting the whole issue of suicide on the railways. If the campaign gives skills to rail staff to note the sometimes subtle signs that an individual is contemplating such an act and saves a life, not just that life is saved but the trauma to many witnessess and response personnel is avoided too.
Richard Gray, London

As a commuter and financial worker in the City, my opinion is that work-related stress is to blame. Most city workers are feeling depressed more often than not, including myself, and it's just a matter of time until the bubble bursts. Most workers, after an incredibly stressful day, waiting on the platform for the train home can be the first break they had after a 8-12-16 hrs day of work; the first time they get the chance to breath and think how unhappy their job/life is. Then they decide they can't take it anymore.. Change the commuting from trains to...helicopters, and the most would just jump off the helicopter..
Constantin, City of London

Sorry, but it IS selfish. I feel everyone has the right to choose the manner and time of their own death. But there are ways that don't destroy a complete stranger's life. The effect on the driver is utterly devastating. Let alone the poor folk who have to pick the bits up - literally in the case of a fast moving train. It isn't clean, it isn't necessarily quick, and it clearly doesn't always work. Help needs to be available for anyone considering suicide. And it would wonderful if none happened. But if it comes to it - it can't be right to destroy other people in the process.
Sandy Fox, Derby, UK

During a period of depression it was ultimately the realisation that every time I was on a train platform I had an overwhelming urge to jump that led me to seek help. Essentially many people are presented with this opportunity to commit suicide on a daily basis and I imagine that as a result it can be far more impulsive than many other ways of taking your own life.
James, Bath

The people who think suicide is selfish have obviously never been suicidal. Yes, you don't see how it would effect people like the train driver or the people might be late to meetings. The vast majority of people who were suicidal (including myself) don't do it just because they are selfish and want to inflict pain and inconvenience on others. They do it because they honestly feel that everyone would be better off if they were to die. So please tell me how that is selfish?
Steve, Birmingham

People do messy things to each other all the time - violently attack others, sexually abuse kids, rape women, ruin lives with fraud and financial greed. No one begs them to stop because of the trauma to onlookers. Just as we respect their right to enjoy life to the full, I think people should have the right to die if that's what they want without the moralists complaining. And if aspirins come in miniature packs and high rise bridges are bristling with barbed wire, then no surprise people choose radical, ugly means to precipitate their end. Of course it's selfish! But then who isn't?
Lindy, London

Being suicidal is a mental illness. It is not a rational thought process. You do not evaluate your options in a normal and rational way. As Penny said in the article, "Even talking about it now, I'm thinking it sounds odd." To use a label of selfish for a mental illness is not right. You wouldn't label someone with a physical illness who involuntarily causes distress of difficulty to others as selfish. There is such a terrible lack of understanding about what mental illness is; this is what needs to change. A poster in a railway station is not very likely to stop someone committing suicide, but if their friends and family were better educated and could look out for signs, their intervention is more likely to be significant.
Marie Smith, UK

As with all acts of selfishness we are talking about degrees. It is OK to be selfish about a box of chocolates, but selfishness to a degree that traumatises other members of the public, family and friends is not OK. I wish every success to the campaign that can help those desperate people to seek that light at the end of the dark tunnel of despair.
Keith Brown

I lost someone very dear, an 18-year-old girl, to this method of suicide in late November. I cannot begin to explain the pain that I was shot through with when I was told. Indeed, I simply collapsed to the floor in complete hysterics - immediate and shocking in itself - and I am not a person who could be called weak or unable to cope with trauma. But imagining the end of this poor and dear girl haunts me still, probably always will, and I can tell you that she was the sweetest, kindest, most warm and loving young person you could ever meet. Her short life had been tragic, she had been sexually abused by her father and her mother had emotionally abandoned her. I wish with all my heart that she had told me what she was considering of course (we had only been in contact the day before and she seemed incredibly "together"), but how anyone can call her selfish in the way that she killed herself astounds me frankly. Of course I feel for the driver and those that saw her end, but she wished them no harm. She was as desperate and lonely as it's possible to be - clearly - and whilst I will grieve her loss for the rest of my life, I hold no ill will against her. Just love and a deep regret that I could not help her more than I had tried to.
Lisa Worth, North Wales

I was 15 feet from a young lady who jumped in front of a train I was waiting for just over a year ago at my local train station. The sight of this is still haunts me and it panics me every time i see a train arriving to the point i have to sit down and cover my eyes. The girl survived but I have no sympathy for her. Her 'easy way out' has scarred me for life, never mind what it did to the other people there that night.
Dave, Kendal, Cumbria

I'm sorry Penny is annoyed that some think jumping in front of a train is a selfish act. As a railway signalman I had to attend two coroner's courts and justify my actions regarding deaths recorded as suicides - both before I was 21. I also saw some sights I won't even attempt to describe here, suffice to say I won't ever forget them. I've also suffered depression and acknowledge that rational thought goes out of the window when suffering mental illness. So anything that can be done to cut suicides on the railway is good in my book, but forgive me if I think first of the railwaymen and women in this regard.
Chris T, Manchester

Of course suicide is selfish. It doesn't matter if a person thinks of the consequences and does it, or if they just don't think of the consequences at all. My father and brother committed suicide, and I found them both a few days after the fact. I've forgiven them, but now no matter how depressed I get (and I have been terribly depressed as a suicide surivor), there is no way I could ever consider such a thing. There is no way I would inflict the lifetime's worth of unanswered questions and 'what ifs' on the family I have left or my friends, not to mention the trauma on the emergency services who would have to attend the scene. My heart goes out to you John, in York.
Nina, Sheffield

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