Franklin James Cook

Preventing Suicide by Train Gets Attention of Research

In Prevention, Research on February 10, 2010 at 7:31 am
Dad at Train Tracks

Steve Vale, whose daughter killed herself in 2008 on these tracks in Mansfield, Mass., watches a train speed by. (John Tlumacki, Boston Globe)

In “Striving To Prevent Suicide By Train,” Boston Globe reporter Noah Bierman introduces an ongoing research study about suicide using trains as a means of death.

The Federal Railroad Administration has funded an effort, the first of its kind, to tally train suicides as part of a study into whether and how more of them could be prevented. The study, now in its fourth year and set for release next year, looks more closely at fences and other barriers, which are often low and rickety, if they exist at all, along the nation’s rail beds.

Preliminary findings from the study suggest that there are about 300 to 500 suicides per year in the United States involving a train. One of the questions under consideration is whether better barriers limiting people’s access to train tracks would prevent such suicides. This approach to prevention, called “means restriction,” is one of the proven ways to reduce suicide.

“When you reduce access to a highly lethal method, overall, suicide rates go down,” said Matthew Miller, a Harvard professor and specialist in suicide prevention.

For example, the presence of a gun in the home multiplies the risk that people will kill themselves by a factor of as much as 10, with the highest risk found in homes where children and teenagers have access to loaded, unlocked guns. And instances of bridge suicide drop substantially when engineers build architectural barricades to prevent jumps.

With 215,000 miles of train track in the United States and in the absence of studies assessing the effectiveness of track barriers in preventing suicide, “some in the industry worry that finding a solution means adding more cost and responsibility,” according to Dr. Alan Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, who is leading the team that is conducting the federal rail suicide study.

Putting up barricades all over the country would not be feasible, he said, but the [team] may suggest testing barriers in targeted areas where prevention is most likely to be successful.

In addition to documenting [train-related] suicides for the first time, Berman’s team is in the midst of conducting 60 psychological autopsies of train suicide victims in an effort to learn about their lives and motivation, to gain insight about how their actions might have been prevented.

The Boston Globe report is framed by the story of 21-year-old Elizabeth Mary Vale, a college student who died by suicide on train tracks in Mansfield, Mass., in September 2008.

[Steve] Vale said his daughter’s suicide note, and attempts she made that day to reach her therapist, indicated she was wavering. Vale has no proof a better barrier would have deterred her.

“We’re not saying it definitely could have,” he said, “but we believe she would not have.”

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