How signs encourage suicide prevention along Metra lines
"You are not alone" is the dominant message of a new set of signs posted in a well-traveled place where people truly are not alone but very much in public.
Now on display at the 5th Avenue Metra station near downtown Naperville, the signs are part of an effort to prevent suicides along the tracks.
The Rotary Club of Naperville Sunrise worked for a year to have the signs posted, saying the message could be a lifesaver if it directs someone -- anyone -- in need to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255.
Lisa Pinto, a club member and psychologist, said she hopes the signs will remind people "who are really suffering, a lot of times from a mental illness, or just feeling alone and burdened by life, that they are not alone."
With the installation of the signs last week, Naperville becomes the fourth community along a Metra line to post suicide prevention information near the tracks, Metra spokeswoman Meg Reile said. Signs also are displayed at stations in Lombard, Villa Park and Elmhurst.
"We support anything that might give a person a chance to take a second thought and reach out and get some help," Reile said.
Suicide has become a "national public health epidemic," Rotary club member and psychiatrist Dr. Caroline Morrison said, and recent information from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention backs her up. A CDC data brief last month reported the national suicide rate has increased 2.5 percentage points between 1999 and 2014, going from 10.5 to 13 suicide deaths per 100,000 people.
Patients with suicidal thoughts are "pretty much an everyday issue in our practice," Morrison said.
Railroad tracks are a particular hazard for those suffering from suicidal thoughts.
According to Federal Railroad Administration statistics, 85 people have died by suicide along Metra tracks during the past five years. Reile said Metra officials keep their own suicide statistics based on the observations of train crews, and those records indicate another 26 deaths between 2011 and 2015 were intentional.
In 2016, there have been 10 fatalities along Metra lines and the agency classifies five of them as suicides.
"Trains are so lethal and accessible," Morrison said.
So the Rotary club worked with Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, Metra and the city of Naperville to make the message of suicide prevention just as accessible.
It's an effort the railroad appreciates, partially because suicide deaths are jarring to train crews, BNSF spokeswoman Amy McBeth said. The railroad offers counseling and trauma relief to employees affected by suicides, especially workers who are often powerless to stop a moving locomotive in time to avoid a fatal crash.
"The goal is to work to prevent that," McBeth said. "These signs provide some resources in an area where they reach a lot of people."
About a dozen signs in Villa Park have been reaching people near the tracks since they were installed using funds from a 2011 federal grant for public education and enforcement, detective Sgt. Bill Lyons said. He says their presence -- and their promotion of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline -- seems to be helping.
The department was responding to a couple of suicides a year along the tracks before the signs were posted, but since then, only one death has been ruled a suicide. It was on April 13, 2013. A death in 2015 was ruled accidental, and a death May 2 is pending investigation.
"We're trying to go years without them," Lyons said about deaths by suicide. "I understand that we're not going to be able to stop everybody. But we're going to do everything that we possibly can."
Alyssa Relyea, a board member with the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention in Illinois, said the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is receiving more calls lately, which shows people are becoming aware of the resource because of prevention efforts such as those by Villa Park police and the Rotary in Naperville.
"Pointing out that there is help -- even the idea that people care, that the Rotary club cares enough to put the information out there -- could be beneficial and could help save lives," Relyea said. "If you put this sign out there, all you're doing is really redirecting their attention, and maybe they'll look at that and make the phone call rather than go through with it."
While counseling and medication can help people address the underlying mental health conditions that could be causing them to consider ending their lives, Morrison said she and her fellow club members wanted to do more to protect teens, young adults and anyone who might be struggling.
In this era of online instead of in-person communication, Relyea said the "you are not alone" message could be a strong one to help accomplish that goal.
"If we were all a little bit more compassionate and empathetic," she said, "I really feel like as a society we could make big changes."
• If you or a loved one are in crisis, visit the nearest emergency room or call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800) 273-8255 or visit www.suicidepreventionlifeline.org.