Suicide by train: What can community do?
By Denise Crosby email@example.com October 7, 2011 4:56PM
In last few month several people have been killed by trains on the Burlington Norther Santa Fe line in the Naperville Area Wednesday, Oct. 6, 2011. | Steven Buyansky~Sun-Times Media
Know the Warning Signs
Talking about suicide
Making statements about hopelessness or helplessness
Preoccupation with death
Loss of interest in things
Giving one’s things away
Setting business in order
Suddenly happy, calmer
Disturbance in eating or sleeping
Previous suicide attempts
SOURCE: Suicide Prevention Services of America
Updated: November 16, 2011 10:26AM
The headlines, appearing so frequently, almost blur together.
Man killed by train
Naperville teen killed by train
Man dies after being hit by train
Man killed by Metra train
Although investigations are not concluded on the last three deaths, police say it appears that four males — ranging in age from 17 to 67 — intentionally stepped onto Naperville train tracks since May of this year. Which can only lead one to wonder if this is more than tragic coincidence.
Sadly, the statistics say no. A recent Northwestern University study identified DuPage as the metropolitan Chicago region’s highest-risk county for deliberate train track fatalities, with 5.1 suicides per million people — well more than twice the average of 2.0.
Normally we see people commit suicide by train once every couple of years. Yet there have been several dozen on Illinois train tracks that have been declared suicides in the past year.
According to the study, the risk factor in DuPage is 7.3 suicides per million population, compared to 1.7 in Kane County. On the Union Pacific West line, which stretches from Chicago to Geneva and Elburn, the annual per capita risk is 10.1. With the Burlington Northern Sante Fe, running from Chicago to Naperville and Aurora, the risk is 6.3 suicides per million population. And on the Milwaukee West line, which run from Elgin to Chicago, the annual per capita risk is 5.3 per million.
Experts say suicides in general seem to be on the rise. Stephanie Weber, executive director of the Batavia-based Suicide Prevention Services of America, blames current economic woes on the increase. While depression almost is always the underlying cause, financial problems, she points out, can lead to a sense of guilt, shame and hopelessness that often sends those struggling into that dark abyss in which they see no other way out.
These local train-related deaths occurred during commuter hours in the warmer months, which most often is the case, according to Northwestern’s statistics. Also, the overwhelming number of victims are male.
That’s because men tend to hide their emotions and are more reluctant to reveal their problems, Weber says. Thus, they become more angry, more bitter, and more likely to choose a form of suicide that allows little chance of survival.
No one knows for sure why anyone takes his or her own life. But why pick such a violent and public act? And are we, by writing about these tragedies, encouraging more copycat suicides?
The latter was a question discussed around the editor’s table. But I’ve been writing stories about suicide long enough to know that, when you’re dealing with a killer in your community, you’re doing no one favors by avoiding the topic. Education and awareness, experts assure us, are the only way we are going to prevent more suicides. “We need to recognize the warning signs,” Weber says. And we need to reach out to those who are struggling.
The more positive news is that the surge in train-related deaths is pushing some communities toward preventative measures. In Lombard, a buffer fence was built along the rail lines to enhance safety, and more villages and towns are looking at ways, like adding shrubbery, to keep trespassers off the tracks.
Suicide by train not only is devastating to loved ones left behind, but it’s also hard on those who are forced to witness the act, including railroad employees unwittingly caught up in the nightmare.
Jim Brady, a Union Pacific engineer, has been through it twice. The first suicide — an elderly woman in Wheaton — occurred early in his 33-year career. The second was less than two years ago, when a young woman walked out of the weeds in the darkness and onto the tracks in Lombard.
It was a sight “I will never forget,” he insists. She was talking on her cell phone, lowered her head, then raised her eyes to stare down his train.
“You put on the brakes on,” he says. “But the look on her face ... you know there is nothing you can do.”