The Saddest Trip

Just to warn people - this post is about suicide, particularly suicide by train. Some of the details are gory and upsetting. I have included them not to be exploitative but to emphasise the horror of it all, and hopefully start people thinking. If you have an issue with what I have written, please contact me to discuss it. Thanks.

Last night it was with a heavy heart I read of a fatality on the rail line not far from where we live. As it turns out, the young man who was killed was likely spraying graffiti on the rail line before he was struck. Tragic and horrible for his family - some might say he deserved his fate for trespassing on railway property to deface it, but I really don't think spraying graffiti quite warrants the death penalty.

At first when I heard the news however, I assumed he had taken his own life. It's depressingly familiar, in every sense of the term, to the regular rail commuter -  barely a week goes by without the announcement of delays on the network due to a fatality; what with Christmas recently, it seemed to be happening nearly every day. There have been four in my local area, just whilst I've been paying attention, in the past six months, including a young woman whom I knew slightly from years ago, who died last August in almost the exact same place as the young man last night. Whilst a very few of these deaths are accidents, the vast majority are suicides. Many years ago whilst travelling through Newtown, I saw the body of what I later learned to be a train suicide, lying on the tracks under a sheet. Haunted by this for many months, I wanted to know who the victim was. Googling got me nowhere - all I was able to ascertain was the victim was male; my questions went unanswered. Who was he? How old, where did he live, what did he do? What was he like? Did he have a family that missed him? What on Earth led him to take that saddest of trips and end his life in such a public and horrible way? All was silence. The Australian media have a taboo on the reporting of suicide, in the belief that discussing the subject will encourage people to do it. But people are doing it anyway. We need to talk about this.

The shame, stigma and silence surrounding suicide remains. "Selfish way to go", seems to be the general thought about train suicides, "what about the poor driver who has to live with that forever? What about the police who have to clean it up?". It is hard to imagine the horror a train driver must feel sitting in their cabin and seeing a person on the tracks, throwing on the brakes but knowing you cannot avoid impact (apparently in the Netherlands train drivers seats swivel, so they can turn away to avoid witnessing the collision with persons who commit suicide by train. This is possibly apocryphal, but what is for sure is that a Sydney train driver can expect at least two or three train strikes over the course of a career). Nor is it fun to think of the police officer wandering the track in the rain for ninety minutes because the body collection is not deemed complete until both feet have been recovered. It's not just on the trains either. On average, one person a week in jumps off The Gap, a cliff in Sydney's east - traumatic for the nearby residents, and for the police rescue squad who have to pluck the remains from the rocks at the bottom. And when the stories hit the media - always discussing the trend generally, never specific cases unless the jumper is well known - lively debate is stirred up. The thoughtlessness of such an act and its' effect on those who have to (literally) pick up the pieces is the dominant theme. Maybe these are selfish acts, but to get caught up with this really misses the point. What of the feelings of those who have taken the jump? Up to 80% of people have apparently given suicide at least fleeting thought in their lives. If we filter that down, and bearing in mind the percentage of the population which have suffered major depression, perhaps one in ten people have given serious consideration to a suicide plan. There are many of us who have stood on the train platform in the dark, perhaps sobbing, perhaps resolute and relieved, watching the trains pass, so heavy and swift. What divides those who step off from those who step back and, eventually, head home? Those who jump must know, I guess, what is about to happen to them. What mental state have they reached to make this seem preferable to continue the slow sad shuffle of life?

The suicides on the train lines and at The Gap are the ones we see, at least to the small extent that the protectionist media will allow. There are the silent majority we don't - the overdoses and hangings, the car over the guardrail on a straight stretch of road in good weather which the police class as an accident to spare the family. It is all swept aside, not discussed. The media taboo is in place, along with an agreement that any news article discussing suicide will feature the phone number for Lifeline. Lifeline do a valuable service to be sure, but as unpaid volunteers without professional qualification, should they be the ones on society's frontline between the suicidal and the edge? For whatever we are doing as a society to prevent suicide right now, it's not working, or it isn't working well enough. "Get help" becomes the advice to those contemplating desperate acts, as if the torments and tragedies of life could be managed by an hour's counselling a week; as if those planning to take their last, saddest trip have not already in many cases been down that path already, and found it indifferent, or damaging. Advising professional help allows the rest of us to sweep the problems of the suicidal aside, we've done our bit, it's all too nasty and upsetting, best to walk away, to leave the problems to someone else. Is our society fundamentally failing people? Or should we accept that life's not for everyone, suicide is a freedom to which we are all entitled and we should afford people better than the indignity of suicide by train? I don't know what the answer is, but we need to talk about these things.


  1. There's probably psychological studies about the impact of media on rates of suicide. If one report mentions death by some obscure method that is then copied, it would be hard not to wonder if the intention or just the method was influenced. Yet my scepticism of the government is such that I'd not be surprised if there were an outdated squeamish taboo aspect to the media blackout, or something about boosting newspaper advertising revenue, rather than being based on evidence based public health. The government seems to ignore most other mental health professional recommendations.
    A consequence of the right wing permeation of public thinking is to look for who to blame rather than what can be done. Neither viewing someone who kills themselves victim or selfish gets towards steps of understanding, it's labelling rather than investigating or studying. A mental full stop to make life easier for the survivors.


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