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Toronto Peer support program helps TTC employees who witness subway suicides

Kevin Freeman, a volunteer with the TTC’s peer support program, poses for a photo at Wilson Station in Toronto, on July 5, 2018.

Tijana Martin/The Canadian Press

Kevin Freeman was driving a train into Toronto’s Bloor Station when a man dressed in black burst through the crowd and jump onto the tracks.

It was 9:45 a.m. on June 26, 2008.

“There was no way I could stop the train,” says the 52-year-old who has witnessed two suicides during his career as the Toronto Transit Commission subway operator.

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He recalls ringing the bell once – a message to the other TTC worker at the back of the train to keep the doors closed – and then picking up the radio and telling his co-worker: “We just had a jumper.”

The first three weeks after the incident were bad, Freeman says in an interview. He slept little and couldn’t tamp down his anxiety. Being around crowds bothered him.

“I tried going grocery shopping and had to run out of the store because I was having a panic attack,” he recalls.

When he finally saw a therapist, he was told his feelings were normal after a traumatic experience.

“That’s when it would have been nice to hear from someone who lived through it,” he says.

Two years later, when the TTC put out a call to start a peer-support group to help workers who witnessed suicide on the tracks, Freeman signed up. The program has since expanded to helping anyone in the company struggling after traumatic experiences.

“Something good has come out of something awful,” says Freeman. “I’m helping other people heal.”

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The idea is simple. It allows anyone to contact a list of volunteers like Freeman to talk freely, confidentiality being a key component. And after a suicide, the volunteers try to reach out within 24 hours to check in on their colleagues.

The program is working, says TTC spokesman Stuart Green. “It allows us to have our employees connect on a much deeper level than with a counsellor or someone on the outside.”

Time off work following such incidents has been reduced by 45 per cent, Green says.

Peer supporters fill the gap between the counselling arranged through the TTC employee assistance program and professional help from the province’s Workplace Safety and Insurance Board.

So far this year, there have been seven suicides and 12 attempts, according to the TTC’s data.

The issue came into the spotlight again last month after a 73-year-old man was pushed in front of a subway train, which led the TTC to reiterate its desire for platform barriers, something that would cost more than $1-billion to retrofit the entire system.

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Until that happens, suicides on the tracks will remain a reality for subway operators.

Now there are 73 TTC workers, including supervisors and management, who support their colleagues across the organization for any traumatic experience. They undergo three days of training, paid for by the company, for critical incident stress support, ethics and guidelines.

Jason Banfield, 47, is a streetcar driver and a peer supporter. He cannot forget his shift on Nov. 23, 2003. It was a grey, rainy day when he drove his streetcar south along Spadina Avenue near Richmond Avenue West.

A young woman darted across the street trying to catch the streetcar going the other way. She never saw Banfield’s streetcar when it struck and killed her.

“It changed me as an individual,” Banfield says.

He went back to work the next day, which, looking back, he says was a mistake. He struggled with anxiety, sleepless nights and vivid nightmares that plagued him for months.

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“It forced me to re-evaluate life and understand how precious it is and how short time can be – and it’s part of the reason I’m involved with safety to this day,” he says.

He spoke to his doctor and casually to a few colleagues at work, but it wasn’t formal like it is now. He says he leaned on his dad, who operated a subway for 32 years and who had been involved in three suicides himself.

So he thought he would pay it forward by joining the program.

“It’s just nice to talk to someone who’s in the trenches with you, someone who understands the subtle nuances, the lingo and the way things work at the TTC,” he says.

“It’s the kind of program that I think could be applied to just about any occupation on Earth.”

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