When a 31-year-old man recently leapt onto the subway tracks and died by suicide, struck by an oncoming N train at the Broadway and 31st Street station in Astoria, his gory death, like a string of others, was extremely visible in a city that depends on public transportation.
“They impact across so many people,” said Dr. Yvette Caro, the director of the Queens College Clinical Psychology Center, referring to the bystanders on the train and the platform, the train’s motorman, the responders and cleanup crew, as well as the person’s family and friends.
So far this year, 72 people have been struck by trains, 31 fatally, but not all were suicides, according to the MTA. Last year 141 people were hit by trains, 55 fatally, and of those 33 were suicides.
Some of the stations with the most suicides are in Queens; 21st Queensbridge and Union Turnpike had two each from 2010 to 2012.
MTA data indicates that the number of subway suicides has remained constant over the past decade, while ridership has increased.
Jim Gannon, the spokesman for the Transit Workers Union Local 100, said that there are usually spikes around the holidays.
According to Gannon, when a train hits someone, the motorman stops the train and calls rail control to tell them to cut power to the tracks and alert EMS and the police and fire departments. The motorman is directed to go down to the tracks to determine what condition the person is in.
The motorman is then taken out of service and sent to transit doctors, where he or she is subject to a drug and alcohol test. If the strike is fatal, the motorman is automatically given three days off, Gannon said. Requests for additional time off are never denied.
“It impacts everyone somehow, in different ways,” Gannon said. “Some guys are back on the job in three days. Some get various types of depression. Some go to the yards and shift trains around; some prefer that.”
There is a whole program to help motormen cope with the trauma of subway deaths, he added.
Caro said motormen often “feel like they were the instrument,” since they see it happen, but can’t stop the trains fast enough.
Kevin Ortiz, a spokesman for the MTA, said that a chaplain is dispatched to the scene of the incident to offer support and guidance to anyone impacted.
Those who die by suicide “think it is a foolproof way of ending pain,” Caro said. However, 40 to 60 percent survive and “with tremendous despair.” Severe injuries and loss of limbs have high long-term medical costs and often lead to cognitive problems.
Since impulsivity and opportunity are prime reasons why people choose this method over others, Caro said that physical barriers would help deter people from jumping onto the tracks. Barriers would also prevent people from falling or getting pushed onto the tracks by accident.
Ortiz said the MTA is exploring platform safety technologies. Platform doors, or screen gates, will be piloted at one station within the next couple of years and intrusion detection technology, which is still being developed, is under consideration.
Caro said preventing suicides requires identifying and treating people who are most at risk. She said that according to the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, 86 percent of people who die by suicide have a history of mental illness. Abuse and neglect also affect people, as does having a relative who died by suicide. Substance abuse, unemployment and homelessness are also risk factors.
“The risk factors are all treatable,” Caro said. “The treatments work.”
However, access to prompt care is crucial. Caro said that it takes about eight weeks to treat depression and that doing so requires “a good working relationship with a therapist or psychologist that the patient trusts.”
But access can be hard to come by. “People think of mental health in a stigmatizing way, especially in immigrant communities,” she added.
The system is difficult for people without insurance and those who are underinsured. They are often forced to move around, which erases their chance of connecting with a mental health professional. Caro said that many patients find public hospitals overwhelming and generally have long waits because their needs are not considered urgent.
Resources for people without insurance do exist, she added. Queens College has a training clinic, where patients can receive free treatment or only pay a small amount. Those seeking care can also call 1 (800) LIFENET (543-3638), which helps connect people to treatment options. The service has operators who speak Spanish and Chinese.
Caro said that a lack of clinicians fluent in the languages of the population makes it difficult for non-English speakers to find effective care.
“For example, it’s hard for someone to say ‘My father abused me’ through interpreters,” she said.
Those who are already severely depressed or have difficulty trusting others often lack the will or ability to seek help, and may require assistance and support from family and friends. Offering to accompany someone to an appointment can make a huge difference, she said.
“If someone is suicidal, don’t leave them alone and limit their access to anything lethal,” she added.
It is often difficult to observe pain and distress in others, Caro said, since many people don’t share their feelings or convey depressive thoughts, since they fear being judged as crazy.
“We don’t know what’s in people’s minds,” Caro said. “There’s so much suffering over so many things. There are so many factors and not enough studies.”
Family members of those who have died by suicide often feel guilty and blame themselves immediately after, but over time they begin to understand that the person’s suicide was a response to their pain, Caro said. Sometimes family members feel like it was done to them on purpose, some gain perspective from the incidents, but individuals react differently.
People who survive their suicide attempts are often grateful, Caro said. Afterwards, they have to “create a life again,” seek treatment and find things that are meaningful for them.