November 23, 2016

Swiss adopt collaborative approach to suicide prevention

Written by  Anitra Green
  • Print
  • Email

Disruptions to railway operations are always bad news, but when caused by suicide, it literally stops you in your tracks. What can be done? Anitra Green reports on recent developments in Switzerland.

SUICIDE is a difficult and delicate subject in all respects, causing not only a lot of suffering for all concerned, but also considerable inconvenience and expense for both railway companies and customers.

Rail companies all over the world face this distressing problem to a greater or lesser extent, but reports on what they are doing about it are few and far between. In Switzerland, which has one of the world’s most heavily-used networks, there is now a concerted attempt to reduce the number of suicide attempts with a new campaign under the motto “Reden kann retten” - talking can save lives.

SuicideLaunched by Swiss Federal Railways (SBB) in partnership with the canton of Zürich, the main focus of the new suicide prevention strategy is to improve communication, raise awareness of its workforce, and examine new technical and construction measures.

One of the basic aims is to break the taboo of talking about this subject - for just talking about it can bring relief. Target groups are obviously those, who are encouraged to be open about their suicidal thoughts and take advantage of help where offered. The programme also targets others in their environment. The message is mainly being delivered online, with a new website and banner advertising on the internet, as this is where most people at risk can be reached.

The three-year nationwide campaign is part of a cooperative effort involving the Swiss helpline for such cases, the federal office of public health (which is currently working out an action plan for suicide prevention), the Swiss psychologists federation, the railway workers union and railway company BLS. The synergic effect is expected to be considerable, offering a great deal more scope than the previous, independent efforts initiated by the canton of Zürich and SBB.

SBB held its first national symposium on this theme in May last year, and also installed helpline placards at various points. By the end of this year SBB will have sent over 10,000 staff on training courses on how to identify people at risk and what action to take. SBB is also working with institutes and specialists on developing new technologies and approaches for early recognition of potential suicides. One possibility SBB is currently investigating is the installation of high-resolution cameras on locomotives, which would detect trackside movement and automatically apply the emergency brakes.

One can only hope it has the required effect, and perhaps influences others to follow suit. But publicity is a sticky issue - journalists must be extremely careful when writing about suicide because of the well-documented copycat effect. That is why the main emphasis of this prevention campaign in Switzerland lies in offering help. In line with this, SBB, which prides itself on its efficient passenger information service in the case of disruptions, will in future only use the word “Personenunfall” (personal accident, the local euphemism for a suicide) on the train or station affected, not the rest of the network.

And is the problem in Switzerland really so acute? Well, SBB describes itself as “hard hit” by the effect of suicide, not to mention the many suicide attempts, and in every case trains have to be delayed, re-routed, replaced, re-staffed, whatever is necessary to get back to normal as fast as possible. According to SBB’s internal statistics the trend has been slowly rising, with 126 cases in 2015 against an average of 112 over the last 10 years. This compares with a general, nationwide decrease in the last 30 years, in a population of around 8 million.

This is not a lot, perhaps, but any at all is too many. Obviously, this issue will never be completely resolved, but measures like this can at least help to alleviate the problem - saving lives, and reducing the suffering of those touched by the tragedy of suicide on the railway.

Get the latest rail news

IRJ Rail Brief newsletter covers global railway news