The Traumatizing Effect Of Train Suicides

Caltrain, the 77-mile, Gilroy/San Jose - SF commuter railroad, is suffering an unwelcome resurgence of ‘suicide by train’--16 deaths this year, of which 11 are confirmed suicides. Bay Citizen investigates the psychological effect on train engineers.
December 12, 2011, 5am PST | Irvin Dawid
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After any suicide, thoughts are extended toward the victim and his or her loved ones. However, when the suicide occurs on train tracks, there is an unintended victim - the operator of the train. Sadly, suicides have become so frequent on the Caltrain line that new Amtrak engineers "are told that it is a matter of when, not if" they encounter someone waiting to die on the tracks.

"According to papers published in psychiatry journals, engineers who witness death on the tracks - suicide or not - are susceptible to post-traumatic stress disorder and the conditions that come with it: anxiety, insomnia and depression."

"The issue here is the profound amount of helplessness at the moment of impact," said Elana Newman, a psychology professor at the University of Tulsa specializing in responses to traumatic life events. "The core aspect of trauma is you see it and there's nothing you can do, and that's the part that's the most problematic."

Amtrak, the operator of the train until March when TransitAmerica Services takes over, provides engineers "three days off and can take more time if needed. They receive calls from a professional counselor and a volunteer peer counselor." Bruce Shelton, a veteran conductor and peer counselor, provides insight into how these suicides can change the lives of train engineers.

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Published on Sunday, December 11, 2011 in Bay Citizen via The New York Times
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