Mental health advocate Kevin Hines speaks in front of the new BART signage listing the Suicide Lifeline Number.
Mental health advocate Kevin Hines speaks in front of the new BART signage listing the Suicide Lifeline Number. Photo: Seung Y. Lee

BART hosted a press conference in its downtown Berkeley station Tuesday to announce a new campaign to combat a recent spike in suicides on its train tracks. By mid-March, there had already been six crashes and five fatalities, the agency reported.

Last year, there were 14 crashes involving BART, including several incidents at the North Berkeley and downtown Berkeley stations. One incident in downtown Berkeley in November — the eighth and final BART-related fatality of 2014 — killed a UC Berkeley student. In 2013, there were six crashes, five of which were fatal.

The main feature of the campaign is station signage promoting the toll-free National Suicide Lifeline, alerting possible troubled patrons that “suicide is not the route.” The number, 800-273-TALK, directs callers to around-the-clock free, confidential counseling from suicide prevention centers in Alameda, Contra Costa and San Francisco counties. 

The possibility of implementing platform screen doors, a common safety feature in subway systems in Europe and Asia, was mentioned, but it was too early to discuss that in depth, BART officials said. The idea would be a long-term project, which would require a feasibility report and substantial funding to turn it into reality.

“It’s an enormous technical challenge,” said Taylor Huckaby, a BART spokesman. “We have platforms in stations that are outdoors and that are underground. We would also need to find the funding of this magnitude.”

In addition to the sign, BART employees will carry wallet cards that list symptoms of possible psychiatric crises. BART, with the assistance of the Bay Area Suicide and Crisis Intervention Alliance, will also begin training employees to recognize and assist a person who may be contemplating suicide.

Other long-term plans, such as printing the suicide hotline telephone number on tickets and installing permanent signage in stations, were briefly mentioned during the press conference.

MacArthur BART station at around 7:15 p.m. after the downtown Berkeley BART station was closed due to a person under a train. Photo: Mori Yagi
MacArthur BART station on Nov. 25 after the downtown Berkeley BART station was closed due to a person under a train. The person, identified as UC Berkeley freshman Selam Sekuar, was the eighth and final BART fatality in 2014. Photo: Mori Yagi

When asked why the number of incidents more than doubled in one year, Huckaby said BART could not speculate.

“We are a transit agency, not a mental health agency,” Huckaby said. “We don’t track suicides nationally or trends.”

After five crashes last November alone, BART put together a task force to explore what steps it might take to address the problem. It invited several mental health organizations across three counties in which BART operates to suggest possible measures it might implement.

Mental health workers in attendance Tuesday applauded BART’s swiftness in action to launch a campaign so quickly after the task force first convened.

“Within a three-month period, they had researched, took the expert advice, put the signage out, and is training their employees,”said Maureen DeCoste, spokeswoman for the Mental Health Association of San Francisco. “For most places, it would take six months to a year to get a campaign in place.”

Despite trains rumbling past the platform where the press conference was held — regularly interrupting the event — suicide prevention advocates pushed through to complete their speeches.

Standing in front of the suicide lifeline number signage, mental health advocate Kevin Hines spoke of his suicide attempt on the Golden Gate Bridge and discussed how BART’s new campaign can save lives.

“This is a commendable first step by BART,” Hines said. “I wish I knew that phone number when I decided to jump from the bridge.”

The National Suicide Lifeline can be reached at 800-273-TALK. Alameda County also maintains a website devoted to confidential mental health crisis support services. The city of Berkeley also has its own mental health services division. In an emergency, however, dial 911 for help. 

Downtown Berkeley BART reopens after fatality (11.25.14)
Man tries to jump in front of BART train in Berkeley (11.11.14)
Man taken to hospital with moderate injuries after incident at North Berkeley BART (11.08.14)
Out of Darkness walk aims to end silence around suicide (10.20.14)
Person hit, killed by freight train on tracks in Berkeley (03.17.14)
Woman killed by train at Ashby BART station (06.27.11)

Do you rely on Berkeleyside for local news? Support independent journalism by becoming a Berkeleyside member for $5 a month or even less, or by making a one-time donation.