Metro has started to add suicide hotline signs to its station platforms and plans to launch a public awareness campaign later this month, nearly three years after promising to begin a suicide prevention campaign amid a surge in deaths.

The agency said on Sept. 17, 2009, that it would start a suicide outreach initiative after a 15-year-old boy killed himself at the Columbia Heights station, becoming the second teen to commit suicide by Metro in less than a week and the seventh suicide on the system that year.

Need help?
The American Association of Suicidology says the best intervention comes before a person heads to the subway. The association urges friends, family and co-workers to take seriously warning signs, which include:
» Increased alcohol or drug use
» No reason for living or lack of sense of purpose
» Anxiety, agitation, difficulty sleeping or sleeping all the time
» Withdrawal from friends, family and society
Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's toll-free number, 800-273-TALK (8255), for direct help or guidance on how to intervene.
Suicides by Metro train
2009: 11 deaths and three attempts
(four deaths and one attempt occurred after Metro's Sept. 17 pledge to start a suicide outreach initiative)
2010: Three deaths and two attempts
2011: Six deaths and four attempts
2012 to date: Four deaths and three attempts
Source: Metro

In the time since that 2009 pledge, 17 people have killed themselves via Metro trains and at least ten more have survived failed attempts while getting struck by trains, often with debilitating injuries. Those numbers don't include those who jumped from the agency's parking garages.

But the outreach program was delayed for nearly three years, even though the agency budgeted $250,000 for it in 2010 and completed an approximately $70,000 consultant's report on how to address the problem in June 2011.

Last summer, the agency began training station managers and train operators in a two-hour class on how to spot and intervene with suicidal riders. The agency says it expects to train all operators and managers by January.

But the public awareness component remained undone. About two weeks ago, Metro started adding signs with hotline information on station platforms, said agency spokesman Philip Stewart. The signs say, "You talk, we listen. Together we survive." This month, 13 stations will get such signs, he said, and the remaining 73 stations will get them in coming months.

Later this month, the agency plans to launch a campaign with posters aboard rail cars, station platforms and buses, Stewart said. The agency also hopes to broadcast public service announcements on local radio stations at no cost to the agency, he said.

Transit agencies around the world have faced similar challenges with suicides, which cause delays and traumatize train operators and riders. Metro has said it would be too expensive to put barriers along all the platform edges as some train systems have done. The agency has also said slowing down trains as they enter stations would cause delays across the system, reducing the numbers of trains that could run.

Instead, Metro opted for a public awareness effort after studying what transit systems have done in cities such as Toronto and Boston.

Tri-State Oversight Committee Chairman James Benton said his group, charged with monitoring Metro's rail safety, has been concerned about the number of suicides on the system in recent years. But he said Metro employees impressed federal transit officials when they presented their outreach plan at a national conference in August. "I believe we'll all be quite pleased as well, provided it works," Benton said.