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First WMATA suicide occurs since public outreach program begins

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Local,DC,Transportation,Kytja Weir

A 24-year-old Maryland man killed himself by jumping in front of a Metro train Tuesday morning at the Farragut North station, making it the fifth suicide on Metrorail this year.

But it was the first case since Metro started posting signs in its stations -- the public face of a $250,000 suicide intervention program -- two months ago reaching out to suicidal riders.

The transit agency now has public service advertisements in every station, 100 ads in trains and some in buses urging suicidal riders to seek help on a hotline: "You talk, we listen. Together we survive." It also has posted signs in 13 stations at the end of the platforms and plans to add them to the remaining 73 stations in coming months. Since Metro's 855-320-LIFE (5433) crisis hotline went live in August, it has received 100 calls, according to the D.C. Department of Mental Health.

Need help?
The American Association of Suicidology says the best intervention comes before a person heads to the subway. The association urges friends, family and co-workers to take seriously warning signs, which include:
» Increased alcohol or drug use
» No reason for living or lack of sense of purpose
» Anxiety, agitation, difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time
» Withdrawal from friends, family and society
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's toll-free number, 800-273-TALK (8255), for direct help or guidance on how to intervene.

But Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology, said no evidence shows whether such signs are effective at stopping those intent on committing suicide. And, he said, signs without a dedicated phone next to them will not be effective, as experts have found that those who commit suicide rarely have cellphones with them.

Instead, he said, agencies in Tokyo and Singapore have added barriers along platforms to prevent the deaths. "That's the only strategy we know will be uniquely effective," he said. But he acknowledged it also is the most expensive, estimating it could cost Metro "millions and millions" of dollars.

In Tuesday's incident, the man intentionally placed himself into the path of a Shady Grove-bound train just before 11 a.m., according to Metro. Metro declined to release the man's name but said he was from District Heights.

The suicide delayed trains on the Red Line for some four hours, and slowed Orange and Blue Line trains. The transit agency had to force trains onto a single track between Dupont Circle and Judiciary Square amid the investigation and cleanup. And due to a track connection between the Red, Orange and Blue lines, Metro single-tracked trains between McPherson Square and Foggy Bottom, too.

But such suicides have far more lasting damage than delaying thousands of riders. Train operators, first responders and those who clean up the scene can face emotional trauma, as do riders who witness it. And some of those who attempt suicide survive but are left with debilitating injuries. Three people survived such attempts this year.

Metro pledged to start a suicide intervention program in September 2009, a year with 11 suicides and three attempts. But the outreach program was delayed for nearly three years, even though Metro budgeted $250,000 for it in 2010 and commissioned an approximately $70,000 report from the American Association of Suicidology.

Last summer, the transit agency began training station managers and other front-line workers on how to spot and intervene with suicidal riders. Some station managers have been given preprogrammed cellphones to contact clinicians if they need help, according to the D.C. Department of Mental Health, and 344 workers have been trained. Metro has said all will receive training by January.

kweir@washingtonexaminer.com

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