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Toronto’s transit agency is overhauling its anti-suicide efforts – with ideas that range from enlisting the public to keep watch for distressed people to bolstering passengers' moods by modifying stations – in a bid to reverse a worsening string of tragedies.

Although suicide has been occurring on the subway system since the first stretch of line opened in 1954, the numbers have taken an alarming turn. Toronto Transit Commission data show that two years from this past decade were the worst since the 1980s for suicide incidents – a term that encompasses both attempted and completed suicides. And the longer-term pattern is raising concerns at the agency.

“With our analysis, it’s on a five-year trend, and we’ve had a significant, statistically significant, upward trend,” said Christine Triggs, safety specialist at the TTC. “So that’s why we’re trying to reboot some of our initiatives to see, is there something else we can do?”

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It’s not clear why the numbers are up in the TTC. There have been no comparable rises at Montreal’s STM or Vancouver’s Translink, the country’s other major transit systems.

The TTC doesn’t have enough information about the people involved in these incidents to explore the question of why they chose this method. Psychological autopsies, which would try to explain why these people sought to die by suicide, are not conducted by either the coroner’s office or Toronto Public Health.

Officials at the TTC have long believed that the only way to prevent suicide is to install a physical separation between platform and tracks, an expensive idea that has received some political backing but no funding. In the meantime, to tackle the rising toll on its subway, the agency is looking at a range of measures.

Some of the more ambitious ideas, including the possibility of a lifting cable-barrier to keep people off the track, are at an early exploratory stage and would carry additional costs that would have to be approved by the agency’s governance board. But other elements could be covered by the existing budget and implemented this year.

Inexpensive physical changes planned for subway stations include modifying them to feature blue lights and perhaps adding soothing artwork, tactics that some research has suggested show promise in reducing suicide. The current posters advertising a suicide hotline will be refreshed and perhaps have their colour changed, helping to bring their message back to the public’s attention.

The agency also wants to borrow an idea from Samaritans, an NGO in Britain, which encourages members of the public to approach someone who appears distressed. The same group has mental-health volunteers go to stations where suicides have occurred, in the hopes of assisting distressed onlookers, an idea the TTC wants to adopt.

Brian Mishara, a professor at Université du Québec à Montréal and founder of CRISE, the Centre for Research and Intervention on Suicide and Euthanasia, was unconvinced by some of the TTC’s ideas for tackling the problem, noting that evidence for the benefits of blue lights is inconclusive. But he believes human intervention can have a major effect on suicidal people.

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“This isn’t a police action,” Prof. Mishara said. “It’s really going up and saying, ‘Are you all right?’ and see how the person responds. And very often, people who are suicidal are hoping that someone will help them.”

The TTC has long struggled with suicide in its subway system. About 1,500 people have tried to take their lives in Toronto’s underground since the first part of it opened 65 years ago.

According to agency data, the annual average so far this decade, counting both attempted and completed suicides, has been around 27. Neither the coroner’s office nor Statistics Canada was able to provide comprehensive enough data to show whether Toronto’s subway numbers over the past decade are out of step with broader trends around suicide.

Roughly half of those who attempt suicide using Toronto’s subway die at the scene, with the remainder surviving long enough to leave the station. The effects of these incidents ripple outward. Family members must come to grips with what can be a terrible death, bystanders are often left shaken and transit employees can be traumatized by what they have experienced.

“The data analysis reveals the leading cause of lost-time injuries due to acute emotional events is involvement or witness to a fatality within the workplace, including suicide,” TTC chief executive Rick Leary wrote in his most recent CEO’s report.

According to the agency, 6 per cent of employee lost-time injury incidents in both 2017 and 2018 are attributable to involvement in a suicide incident.

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The agency has long sought to reduce suicides by training staff to watch for telling behaviour, and be ready to intervene, and by installing posters with a phone number that distressed people can call. The new plan broadens the categories of staff who would be trained in spotting suicidal behaviour and includes better support for employees involved in these incidents.

“The time is right,” said TTC chief safety officer John O’Grady. “We’ve got a new CEO, we’ve got a new [governance] commission … we’ve got stats showing just how impactful this is on our employees and our operations. It’s time."

If you are having thoughts of suicide, call Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or Crisis Service Canada at 1-833-456-4566, or visit http://www.crisisservicescanada.ca/, call 911 or go to your nearest hospital.

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