Characteristics of victims
It is important to identify the characteristics of people who commit suicide by train to help orient prevention strategies to identify groups at risk for possible targeted interventions.
More people who commit suicide by train are unemployed, retired or on a pension because they are unfit to work (43.3% of suicides) and this proportion is much higher than in the general population. As a point of reference, the 2010 data from Statistic Canada indicates that the rate of unemployment varied from 7.4% in 2001 to 6.6% in 2006. However, suicide victims generally tend to be unemployed, as do people with severe mental health problems.
Suicide victims were more likely to be single (27.0%) or separated (24.3%). However, we notice a large number of suicide victims who had a spouse (45.9%, compared to 48.7% of the general population in 2003).
It is also interesting to note that men and women who committed suicide do not have the same pattern of marital status in our sample. As we find in the general population of people who die by suicide, more women who commit suicide by train are in a relationship (45.9%) than men (40.0%).
We found that the living situation of persons who committed suicide reflects more difficult economic and social circumstances. A relatively high proportion of suicides either lived alone (17.9%), in communal living (6.9%), in institutions (7.5%) or in temporary living situations (2.3%), for a total of 34.6%.
Suicide is often associated with adverse life events. In the case of railway suicides, the content of coroners’ files shows among the difficulties identified, relationship problems constituted a significant portion (24.5%), followed by family issues (16.2%), problems with the law (15%), and financial or housing problems (11.9%). These events had occured within a year of the suicide.
In our sample, 6 people were indentified as having been grieving the death of a close person who died previously on the tracks.
Thirteen percent of suicide victims were suffering from a chronic health problem, such as diabetes or heart problems. The majority were diagnosed with depression or bipolar disorder (57.3%). Other frequent psychiatric problems included substance abuse problems (30%), schizophrenia (17.4%) and lifelong history of suicidal ideation (12.6%).
Interestingly, only 22.1% were under psychiatric or psychological care at the time of their death and a further 17.4% had been in the past.
Warning Signs of an Impending Suicide
There were notes in the coroners' files indicating that at least 89 of the suicide victims had made threats to kill themselves in the days before their death, of which 35 had said they would do it by train. 13 people had made a previous attempt by train (of those 12 died by suicide and 1 was classified as an undetermined death).
Implication for prevention
The socio-demographic characteristics of railway suicide victims are similar to people who die by suicide through other means. Therefore, suicide prevention strategies that target the general population should also have an impact on those at risk for railway suicides.
- Railway suicide is a method chosen primarily by males. Therefore suicide prevention strategies should be sensitive to gender and take into account knowledge about men’s use of support and care services.
- People who commit suicide by train often come from underprivileged backgrounds. Strategies based on technological access to support (internet, cell phones) may not be the best options, since a portion of the target population may not have the monetary means to have access to these technologies.
- At least 20% of people who died by train suicide expressed their intent to commit suicide prior to their death. This suggests that health, mental health, and community workers should be better trained to address people who talk about suicidal intentions.
- As is generally the case with suicide victims, mental health issues are very frequent in railway suicide however individuals were often not in care at the time of their death. Access to mental health care and increasing mental health worker's ability to identify at risk patients would be promising prevention strategies.