Reader Viewpoint

A Decision without details

John McCarthy December 1, 2011

He had made his Decision.

My family and I were halfway to London when our train made one of its usual stops at a station. Normally, the doors would close again in about 30 seconds, and we would be on our way. But this time, we waited for five minutes. It was a late Monday morning filled with sunshine.

“Attention, passengers,” came a voice across the public address system. “My apologies for the delay. There’s been an accident at [one of the towns ahead of us]. Police have been called. I’m afraid that we’re going to have to turn back to our previous stop. Passengers can take the train to Reading, then change there for London Paddington Station.”

“What’s wrong?” my 8-year-old daughter asked.

“I’m not sure. Maybe there’s been a car accident on the train tracks,” I replied.

At that moment, I knew nothing of the Decision that had been completed a mere eight miles ahead of us.

All trains headed to London on this route were halted. Upon returning to our previous stop, confusion ensued. From which platform was the Reading train leaving? Platform 4. No, Platform 5. Was it the 12:03 or the 12:22? Hundreds of people moved back and forth, waiting on the edge of the railways.

His Decision involved one more step.

Job interviews were dashed. Heathrow flights were missed. Lunch meetings were canceled. Dinner plans were rearranged. And somewhere, his family members and friends were forced to cope with what might have been the unimaginable.

A cramped train to Reading found passengers searching for seats in vain, forced to stand in the aisles and entries to the coaches. A small dog panted in discomfort on the floor.

All of this because of his Decision, an action, I suspect, that seemed to be the best — perhaps the only — alternative in his mind.

A group of six older Britons sat across from us. “Excuse me,” I piped up. “I’ve been so impressed with the rail system here. Everything’s been so smooth and right on time. Does something like this happen often?”

A woman turned to me. With a gleam in her eye, she deadpanned, “Oh, they must have seen you coming.”

I laughed aloud, still unaware that joy was the furthest of emotions to be felt at the scene a few miles away. His Decision was final, and I was about to be affected in a way I couldn’t have imagined when our journey began.

A few moments later, I overheard the same passengers talking quietly about the delay. I thought I caught mention of the fatal word.

“Excuse me,” I interjected again. “What’s the reason for the delay?”

A man with soft eyes sitting diagonally across from me murmured one word: “Suicide.”

I didn’t think I had heard him properly. “Pardon me?”

The man put his index finger to his throat and made a motion across it.

I was, to use British slang, “gutted.” Utterly devastated. My heart sank. It hadn’t crossed my mind that this might be The Decision disrupting our journey home.

“Did you hear that?” I whispered to my partner out of our children’s earshot.

“Yeah,” she replied disappointedly.

“Probably no accident that it’s a Monday morning.”

I think most if not all of the other passengers likely knew of his Decision by now. Yet no one talked about it. The train was simply quiet.

Arriving in London about 90 minutes later, I called a friend making a similar journey to the city that evening and warned him of the delay. I used the word “accident” in my voice mail, perhaps out of hope that I had been misinformed. Perhaps out of denial.

I searched the Internet that evening, but to no avail. No news of a railway accident outside of London. Maybe, I thought, it was just a rumor. A false one.

My friend emailed me the next morning with the news I didn’t want to hear. “Sorry to hear about the protracted journey home. It sounds as though someone threw themselves under a train, so I suppose that puts the inconvenience into context.”

My heart sank again. I returned to the Internet, finding, sadly, the lead headline on a newspaper website covering the town where the suicide had been completed: “Fatality at station causes major delays.” An unnamed man had indeed been struck by a train and was pronounced dead at the scene. Officers were “not treating the incident as suspicious.” Of the 312 words used to describe his Decision, “suicide” was not among them. A file was being prepared for the coroner.

I visited the same website the following day seeking a follow-up story. Nothing else had been written. The initial story was changed, however, relating that the man was 49 years old. I felt a sudden connection to him. We were the same age and had both experienced the Beatles, the end of the Cold War, the dawn of the Internet, Sept. 11 and economic recession.

Sadly, he must have perceived his future as painfully bleak. At 10:53 a.m., his hopelessness won out on the edge of the train tracks.

He likely was not alone that day in making such a Decision. According to the Office for National Statistics, approximately 5,675 people in the United Kingdom completed suicide in 2009, amounting to an average of almost 16 such Decisions per day.

My mind went to him, lying on the tracks. Who was this person? What led to his Decision? Did anyone try to intervene? What had happened in his life the weekend preceding his Decision? What overwhelming stressors did he face? Did he have a family? Close friends? A counselor? How was the train engineer? Most important, how could he have arrived at a different decision and not The Decision?

To me, the question became one of warning signs, both overt and subtle, that were surely present in the months leading up to the event. According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, nine out of every 10 people completing suicide have one or more psychiatric disorders, with depression being most common. The American Association of Suicidology offers the mnemonic device “IS PATH WARM” to recall warning signs. I wondered how many of the 10 factors were present with this person.

  • How long was his Ideation present?
  • Was there Substance abuse involved?
  • Was there a Purposelessness related to his work, family relationships or life direction?
  • How was his Anxiety manifested?
  • In what ways did he perceive being Trapped?
  • At what point did he become Hopeless about his future?
  • To what extent did he Withdraw from others?
  • How did Anger influence his decision?
  • Were his behaviors Reckless?
  • Did he experience Mood changes?

The grim fact is that this man will not be alone in completing suicide on the train tracks this year. About 200 railway suicides take place annually in England, and nearly 70 percent of the individuals are males.

How can such events be prevented? Timing may offer one element. An investigation on people falling or jumping in front of trains on the London Underground — most of which were suicides or suicide attempts — from 1940 to 1989 found that the peak times for such incidents were between 11 a.m. and noon and again between 3 and 4 p.m. Sunday experienced the fewest number of incidents, while slightly more weekday incidents occurred on Mondays. Springtime (March to May) was the period of highest frequency, and significantly higher incident rates were found at stations in close proximity to psychiatric facilities.

In the United Kingdom, Network Rail has teamed with Samaritans, an organization that helps people in distress or despair, including those who are suicidal, on a £5 million (about $8.3 million) program to address the problem. The program is highlighted by educating railway workers on how to detect and talk with individuals who may be contemplating suicide.

The man whose life — and tragic death — indirectly intertwined with mine that spring morning might have been out of a job. Maybe he faced significant money issues, medical problems or relationship difficulties. Perhaps severe losses simply mounted in his life.

I’ll never know.

The one thing of which I am certain, however, is this: I wish that His Story had a much different ending.

John McCarthy, a professor in the Department of Counseling at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, wrote this article while on sabbatical as an Academic Visitor in the Faculty of Education at the University of Cambridge. He is also a member of the Westmoreland County (Pa.) Suicide Awareness and Prevention Task Force. Contact him at jmccarth@iup.edu.

Letters to the editor: ct@counseling.org

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