Judith Timson: Finding help and hope on the TTC platforms
On Monday, World Suicide Prevention Day, Brad Ross, the TTC’s director of communications tweeted the following:
Last year, 19 people died by suicide on the TTC and another 26 attempted to end their life. To date in 2018, 31 people have either died by suicide or attempted to die by suicide on the TTC. There is help and hope.
Ross linked to a program called Crisis Link, a poster/payphone program on every subway platform. It encourages anyone contemplating suicide to use the payphone at the Designated Waiting Area on each platform. “The direct-dial button connects callers with a trained counsellor at the Distress Centres of Toronto.”
The phone call, according to the information, is “free and confidential. ” Counsellors “assess the risk to the individual who is considering suicide.” Distress Centres staff will contact the TTC’s Transit Control Centre to “implement the appropriate measures to ensure the individual remains safe.”
Ross’s tweet made me wonder how many of us have been affected by the dramas behind these statistics. And how we don’t really have a way to publicly discuss them.
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On a late fall day three years ago, I entered my local subway station on my way to see my doctor. For weeks I had been in a fog after falling and hitting my head, and I needed treatment for concussion.
I couldn’t cope with much. But I decided to brave an off-peak hours subway ride — a simple five stops from my downtown home to my doctor’s office.
After going through the turnstile, I saw a young woman intently watching passers by. She was wearing boots, pants, a jacket, an open necked shirt and her short hair was spiky.
Downstairs on the platform, I sat down on a bench.
Three minutes to train time.
The young woman with the spiky hair suddenly appeared on my left, standing close. She leaned down and placed her hand on my leg.
“I think you should take your hand away,” I said. “Am I scaring you?” she asked. “No,” I said “but you need to take your hand away.”
“Do you think I’m going to hurt you?” she asked. She could have easily hurt me. Yet I really didn’t think she would
Two minutes to train time.
Beside me was another woman seated on the bench.
The young woman moved around and touched her too. This woman remained as calm as I was. Her response was the same: “You shouldn’t be doing this.” There were two of us now, being touched by a stranger.
One minute to train time.
I say something impulsively to the spiky-haired girl: “I’m not hurt, but I think you might be. Do you want us to find some help for you?”
“No” she said, “I think I am just going to jump.”
The train was already in the station.
The other woman and I got up together and grabbed the one with the spiky hair. For a second she remained with us on the platform. Then she headed toward a door on the train. The other woman spoke quickly to me: “I’m a crisis counsellor” she says. “Let me get this.”
Oh good, I thought with relief. She followed the girl onto the train, and I deliberately boarded at another door. The train started to move.
An older couple on the train materialized in front of me. “Didn’t you see what just happened?” the woman demanded. “That girl left the train and is back on the platform. You’ve got to go back. You were the one dealing with her.”
I realized that if I got out at the very next stop I would miss my appointment. But what was my choice?
At the next stop, I rushed up the escalator and hurried to the booth to tell the ticket taker there was a problem. Just ahead of me at the booth I saw my former benchmate —the crisis counsellor who had followed the troubled girl.
“I told them,” she said. “They’re going to stop the trains.” We could already hear the announcement starting.
The two of us walked out of the station together and lingered briefly in the daylight. “So you’re a crisis counsellor” I said. “On leave at the moment,” she responded. I realized for the first time she was pregnant. “Oh my god, when are you due?” Today, she told me. “So you must be on your way to the doctor too.”
No, she replied, she was so antsy she was going to a movie.
“Good luck,” I said.
As I crossed the street, I saw a uniformed officer with a notebook open. I followed to tell him what had happened.
“We’re looking for her now,” he said. I gave him a description. Then I walked slowly home.
Two days later I called the police. They were not able to tell me anything in detail, the officer said, not even whether they had found her. But he could reassure me there was no further “accident.”
I ask him if the other woman and I did the right thing by jumping up to grab the troubled girl. The gist of his reply was that “we’re taught to take care of ourselves first, and she might have been strong enough to pull you with her.”
Later I would tell this extraordinary story to friends and family and even to dinner parties. Some reactions jarred me: “Maybe that’s all she does. Goes up to people, scares them and then goes on to the next station.”
There is a media rule about not publishing subway incidents for fear of copy cats. But it’s odd to me that such a haunting human drama can just disappear from public discussion. Stories like this give human meaning to statistics, and maybe helpful information.
At my station, I still look for the young woman with the spiky hair. I often wonder if she is still with us, and whether she has found both “help and hope.”
Judith Timson is a Toronto-based writer and a freelance contributing columnist for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @judithtimson