BART Slowly but Surely Marches Toward Better Suicide Prevention

Most train collisions involve suicide. Prevention experts have big ideas about how to change that in the next decade.

Ride BART enough and you’ll notice “major medical emergencies” attributed to some delays. More often than not, collisions are related to suicide — tragedies that may be better prevented in the coming years.

All but 10 of 82 collisions on BART trackways from November 2009 to August 2019 have been related to suicide, according to data obtained by SF Weekly. Forty-eight people died by suicide, including four in 2019 through August.

“If you’ve ever ridden BART, you might begin to notice when someone may have died by suicide,” says Narges Zohoury Dillon, executive director of Crisis Support Services of Alameda County. “Some people feel their pain is invisible. As they’re dealing with their pain or thoughts of suicide, someone approaching them could make a difference for them.”

In 2015, BART partnered with suicide prevention experts through the Bay Area Suicide and Crisis Intervention Alliance (BASCIA), made up of local mental health professionals and agencies now, to place signs advertising the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 1-800-273-TALK(8255) number. The campaign came after the agency encountered a rise in collision incidents classified as suicide or attempted suicide, from six in 2013 to 14 in 2014.  

But crisis support workers like Dillon are saying it’s time to begin new conversations around prevention. The Federal Communications Commission approved a new, nationwide 988 number — akin to 911 — for emergency mental health in December, which will take another 18 months to go into effect. That means it will soon be time to update those signs, which BART spokesperson Alicia Trost said they will do once the number is ready. The transit agency also studied adding a physical barrier between platforms and tracks, but has put any such pilot program on hold for the time being. 

While BART’s latest data logs 39 lifeline calls related to the agency in 2016, it’s unclear how many people in crisis thought to call after seeing signs at BART stations. Callers may not mention the sign and crisis support staff are often unable to tell that person is alive unless they call back, both Zohoury Dillon and Van Hedwall of San Francisco Suicide Prevention say. 

“It’s really hard to know whether or not people are calling because they’ve seen that specific signage unless they say it,” Zohoury Dillon says. “Overall, there’s been an increased awareness across the board,” she says, citing a spike in calls after the 2018 deaths of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain and the release of a song by Logic named after the lifeline number.

Calls to the national lifeline have increased over time, with 2 million in 2017 and 2.5 million in 2018. The number of calls is predicted to double in the first year of the new 988 number’s existence and grow to 16 million by its fifth year. Hedwall says the new three-digit number is a big step to modernizing the crisis call center system.

“It’ll help with the stigma around mental health and suicide,” Hedwall says. “The best way for prevention with our BARTs, Caltrains, you name it, is going to some kind of structural prevention to access and means. That’s very expensive.”

San Francisco International Airport’s Airtrain system uses platform screen doors. (Photo courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Prevention experts like Hedwall and Zhoury Dillon call for platform screen doors, much like the ones placed at San Francisco International Airport’s AirTrans system that shuttles flyers between terminals and BART. The agency found in 2019 that it would cost up to $25 million to install such a physical barrier in a station. The BART system has 48 stations. Consequently, BART made the decision in September to delay a screen door pilot program intended for the 12th Street Oakland station. 

Platform doors are considered a broad safety measure for all passengers. As anyone who watched the dramatic video footage of a BART employee saving a man who accidentally stumbled into the tracks from the Coliseum station platform in November, reminders to stay behind the yellow line isn’t always enough.   

“There’s also accidental deaths that are happening on the tracks,” Zohoury Dillon says. “All of these deaths could be preventable and they’re not all intentional. There’s more people on platforms.”

At first, BART Board Director Bevan Dufty was dismayed that the screen door pilot program was put on hold. But then the reality of transitioning to the newer trains, which have three doors instead of two on the older fleet, and completing a much-needed upgrade to the train control system set in. 

“We don’t want to see loss of life. We want to do this the right way that will work for the system,” Dufty says. “These are kind of show stoppers and it’s difficult to do a pilot and see the benefit of it working if the underlying systems themselves are not up to current standards.”

BART plans to award the contract to update its train control system early this year and phase in more new trains before getting back to the platform screen door pilot program. 

Zohoury Dillon is well aware that BART is years away from installing the most effective solution they’ve identified for suicide prevention on train systems. Still, she feels it’s time for transit agencies to start talking more frequently about prevention through BASCIA, which meets monthly and will be grappling with needed funding increases for smaller centers to prepare for the deluge of 988 calls coming. 

“I don’t think that our transit agencies have really focused on suicide prevention,” Zohoury Dillon says. “Right now might be a good time to revisit that conversation.”

If you or someone you know needs help, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 1-800-273-TALK(8255) or text 741-741 to speak to a nearby certified crisis center and counselor. Both are free and operate 24/7.

Local crisis centers San Francisco Suicide Prevention and Crisis Support Services of Alameda County may be reached at 415-781-0500 and 1-800-309-2131, respectively.

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