Metra steps up suicide prevention, mental health awareness

  • Metra foreman Robert Tellin prevented a man from taking his life at a station in 2016 after receiving training from the railroad. The agency is working on a campaign to prevent deaths by suicide.

      Metra foreman Robert Tellin prevented a man from taking his life at a station in 2016 after receiving training from the railroad. The agency is working on a campaign to prevent deaths by suicide. Brian Hill | Staff Photographer, March 2016

 
 
Posted10/2/2017 5:40 AM

Yia Shanklin is full of hope these days. It's a far cry from the dark place she was several years ago, when a tough childhood, chronic poverty and her son's involvement in gangs drove her to despair and to a Metra platform in Downers Grove.

A voice in Shanklin's head told her if she stepped in front of a train it might derail. "Do you want that blood on your hands?" she thought. With that, Shanklin walked "really fast" to a nearby police station and got help.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"We're not alone in this world," she told an audience of railroaders and mental health professionals Friday, urging them to carry that message far and wide.

The forum organized by Metra was the official launch of a campaign to prevent suicides by train in which Metra is collaborating with its partner railroads and the mental health community.

This December, the railroad intends to blanket stations and platforms with posters offering hope and a help line number to anyone contemplating taking his or her own life, Metra Chief Safety and Environmental Officer Hilary Konczal said.

The campaign also is aimed at connecting with people suffering from mental illness or who want information for a friend or loved one.

In the coming weeks, the railroad will work with county officials across the region and groups like the DuPage Railroad Safety Council to finalize designs and messages with broad appeal.

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Many people are uncomfortable talking about suicides, and that reluctance has been shared by railroads. For that reason the conference was titled "Breaking the Silence," signaling a change from hands-off policies to prevention by Metra and its partners, the Union Pacific and BNSF railroads.

"We're trying to find ways to make sure people know there is help, there is hope, there is a light at the end of the tunnel," Metra Chairman Norm Carlson said.

Twenty-one people have died by suicide or possible suicide on Metra tracks this year, a number that appears to be trending higher than previously.

In 2016, there were 20 confirmed or possible suicides along the rails. And in 2015, Metra reported 19 confirmed and suspected suicides on train lines.

The statistics caught the attention of Metra officials in mid-February after eight people died either intentionally or by accident along the tracks. At that point, the agency's board directors decided the railroad needed to get involved.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Experts at the conference Friday dispelled myths that only trained professionals can intervene in suicides.

Approaching someone who appears to be contemplating suicide and asking questions such as "Are you feeling bad?" or "Will you let me help you?" can lower the risk of a fatality, Northwestern University psychiatrist John Csernansky said.

Metra began training its employees in suicide intervention in 2015 and has successfully intervened in 39 cases this year.

Shanklin received treatment from the DuPage County Mental Health Program and has gotten her life in a better place.

"There's hurt and pain" in the world, she said. But "there are people who care."

You should know

Suicide warning signs might include nervousness or agitation, pacing, waiting on a platform but not boarding, sitting in a parked car, dressing in dark clothing, a lack of belongings such as a purse or briefcase, and standing on the edge of the platform on the yellow strip.

If you think someone is in danger, you can alert Metra employees or call Metra police at (312) 322-2800 or 911.

The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention hotline number is (800) 273-8255. For information on suicide prevention, go to afsp.org/.

Upcoming

Pace will hold hearings on its budget, which includes a proposed fare increase, at the following locations: 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 16 at the Waukegan Public Library, 128 N. County St.; 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 17 at the Kane County Government Center, 719 Batavia Ave., Geneva; 3 to 5 p.m. Oct. 17 at Pace headquarters, 550 W. Algonquin Road, Arlington Heights; and 4 to 5 p.m. Oct. 19 at the Crystal Lake municipal complex, 100 W. Woodstock St.

Gridlock alert

No joy in Libertyville, Hainesville and Grayslake, at least on stretches of routes 120 and 45 where daytime "intermittent" lane closures will occur as workers modernize traffic signals. The project wraps up next summer.

Have a plan for the plan?

Got a thought on Metra's future trains, schedules, expansions or seat designs? You can offer an opinion and contribute to the railroad's strategic plan now through Friday at metrarail.com/about-metra/reports-documents/strategic-plan. A final version of the plan will be presented to the Metra board in November.

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