The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) renewed its award-winning suicide prevention program, which it started in partnership with crisis intervention agency Distress Centres in 2011, through July 2018.
The TTC and the Distress Centres extended an agreement to continue the Crisis Link program, which provides platform pay phones near the designated waiting area on each subway that connect people in distress and contemplating suicide with a Distress Centres counselor. Crisis Link calls are free.
When a TTC customer calls Crisis Link from one of the pay phones, a counselor with the Distress Centres can track where on the TTC the call is coming from. The counselor then determines whether the caller is in danger of harming themselves. If they are, the Distress Centres notifies the TTC’s transit control center where subway trains are slowed when entering that station and help for the caller is dispatched.
Since Crisis link was introduced, the Distress Centres have received 218 calls from individuals in distress. Of those, 12% of callers were considered to have suicidal thoughts that required action by the TTC and police. The Distress Centres have handled an average of 2.75 incidents per month of people contemplating suicide on the transit system. No person has ever attempted suicide on the transit system immediately after speaking with a Crisis Link counselor, according to agency officials.
While it is difficult to make a definitive correlation between the reduction of suicide incidents and the Crisis Link program, in 2010, the year prior to Crisis Link implementation, there were 29 suicide incidents on the system, according to the TTC. In 2011, 16 suicide incidents were reported. In 2012, there were 19 suicide incidents, and to date, there have been nine suicide incidents on the transit system in 2013.
The agency trains frontline employees on how to identify customers who may be at risk of self-harm — exhibiting behavior such as prolonged crying and pacing on the subway platform — and how to respond, Ryan Duggan, team leader fire safety and emergency planning, TTC, explained.
“If a subway operator suspects a customer is at risk, they must call the transit control center, [which] will institute a slow order, requiring the train to move at a walking pace through the station,” he added.
Personnel are also trained on how to enter into a discussion with the passenger directly.
Feedback solicited from TTC employees shows that they feel one of the program’s strengths is the advertisement campaign in the subway cars and on the platforms, Duggan said.
“It attempts to remove the stigma around mental health issues and encourages people contemplating suicide to reach out for help without being embarrassed or ashamed,” he added.
In 2012, Crisis Link won a Corporate Leadership Award from the Canadian Urban Transit Association. The TTC was also the 2011 recipient of the Arnold Devlin Community Service Award, presented by the Ontario Association for Suicide Prevention.
The budget for the five-year program extension is $536,000, according to Duggan, and the TTC has spent approximately $247,000 on the Crisis Link program since 2011.
He noted the program’s expense prevents the costs associated with a suicide, which extend well beyond the incident, including, “most importantly, the physical and psychological short- and long-term effects it has on our customers and employees, but also loss of service, operation of shuttle buses during incident closure and investigation.”
“We feel that if the program has resulted in one life being saved, the amount of money spent will have been justified,” Duggan added.