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Transit & Mental Health: A Sign of Change

Mary Proc, Metrolinx

In September, 2016, a GO Transit employee filed this report:

During morning rush hour, on the platform at King City, I noticed a middle-aged gentleman pacing the platform, looking uncertain of his surroundings.  When I approached him to ask if I could help, he told me he was debating killing himself, and didn't know whether he should end his life by taking pills or by train. I coaxed the gentleman away from the platform towards the station building where the GO Station Attendant and I were able to give him some water, and call Transit Safety, who in turn notified York Regional Police.  Within the hour, the police arrived and took the individual into custody for treatment at the local hospital.

This incident ended well, but many do not.

In six years, there have been 67 fatalities involving GO Trains, 24 per cent of which were deemed accidents on the part of the deceased. However, a full 76 per cent of these fatalities were deemed suicides.

GO Transit staff are committed to being “guardians of the journey,” reducing these accidents whenever and wherever possible because of their high toll on the victim’s families, our employees and our customers. While the personal and societal impact of suicides and the factors that contribute to them are always top of mind, GO is also mindful of the large impact they have on rail operations, sometimes delaying service for up to three hours.  When you consider that each rush-hour train carries about 2,000 passengers, and almost 50 per cent of deaths happen during rush hour, the effect on train service is significant.

Apart from the tragic impacts to families and communities, the effect on train crews and Transit Safety Officers attending the scene is also significant.   To provide better support to these staff members, GO has been working with the coroner's office to enable more responsive on-scene support for these incidents.   Also, since 2013, there has been a mandatory debriefing with a counsellor from Metrolinx's employee assistance provider after each incident.   Finally, GO has worked closely with the Canadian Police Knowledge Network to offer suicide awareness training, a four-hour course that helps officers identify vulnerable people who may want to harm themselves, and how to deal with the repercussions of suicide.

Bombardier, the company that provides crews to operate GO trains, has also begun to develop a peer support network through voluntary training. The logic of this peer support initiative is to have a team of peers who have an intimate knowledge of the rigors of train operations, who are a trusted source of support, and who are often readily available for consultation when the need arises. Bombardier has had a huge response to a call for volunteers, and will begin the training early in the new year. This initiative is a complement to the standard mandatory debrief with professional counsellors.

But fortunately, not all suicide attempts result in tragedy. GO staff successfully intervene in 70 to 95 potential fatalities each year, 70 per cent at stations, 15 per cent on buses, and 15 per cent along tracks. However, in a better world, GO would not need to respond so often, and the transit agency wanted to do more to help people at risk. In 2015, Greg Percy, Chief Operating Officer for Metrolinx, had this to say about mental health:

“May 4th, is the start of Canadian Mental Health Awareness Week.  While I am no expert on mental health issues, I do know that mental health issues have a significantly broad and pervasive societal impact as felt by many families, directly and indirectly.  I was moved last Spring when I met a Burlington freelance writer whose son 10+ years ago in a state of desperation, tragically chose to end his life by stepping in front of a GO train.”

Greg researched several groups with whom GO Transit could form a partnership and he landed on ConnexOntario, a provincially-funded agency providing free, confidential support to people with alcohol, drugs, gambling or mental health issues. Metrolinx and Connex formed a partnership, and a sign was co-designed to publicize the Connex hotline as a way to offer visible support to vulnerable people in the communities through which GO Transit operates. A total of 800 signs were installed in high-trespass and high-visibility areas throughout GO's rail network.

Within three months of the signs going up, the following report was filed by a ConnexOntario counsellor:

I took a call from a distressed woman.  I learned that her three kids had been taken from her and placed with her parents…. The mother said she didn't know what to do anymore, and her plan was to take a handful of sleeping pills, and lie down on the train tracks at the GO station. While she was on the phone with me, I was able to alert the Peel Regional Police, who in turn contacted GO to stop the trains in that area and locate the woman. They were able to find this distraught mother, and local police brought her to the hospital for assessment and treatment.”

Metrolinx is now in talks with VIA and CN to extend this partnership, with the vision that this mental-health safety-net could extend from coast to coast.  Greg Percy is inviting interest from any and all Canadian transit properties to forge similar partnerships with their local mental health service providers.

According to Greg…

“The Connex partnership recognizes that our GO rail service plays a significant role in every community through which we operate.  It is about giving back to those communities and simply doing the right thing.”

 

GO Transit facts

GO Transit is a division of Metrolinx. GO carries 70 million passengers annually, 80% aboard its trains and 20% aboard its buses, but the two form one integrated whole. GO operates through a territory of 11,000 square kilometres, from Niagara Falls in the west to Peterborough in the east, and from Union Station in the south to Barrie in the north.

 

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