September 14, 2019
On any day, at any moment, Toronto’s subway can transform into a tragic stage. It's a place where every year people try to end their lives. Those acts of private despair become public spectacles that force transit workers and commuters to bear horrible witness, a collective trauma that for decades was shrouded in silence.
A silence the Toronto Transit Commission is breaking.
Talking openly about suicide is incredibly difficult and some consider it nothing short of dangerous. The Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) has a different perspective — that acknowledging what's going on is a crucial part of preventing people from taking their own lives, and showing how simple things can head off tragedy.
"We are worried," says John O’Grady, who's been in charge of safety at the TTC for the past 21 years, referring to the fear of a contagion effect if people talk about suicide.
"But not talking about it hasn’t worked."
It was the death of 27-year-old Michael Padbury three years ago that marked a cautious turning point for the TTC. In a series of tweets, a spokesperson told frustrated commuters the delays were the result of someone’s mental health anguish.
It was a nod to the fact Padbury’s death was a deliberate act. And for his mother, it was an acknowledgement that her son existed.
"This was somebody who took their life here, you know, on the subway," Karen Padbury says, her voice breaking. "And yes, it created havoc for your day, you couldn’t get to your appointment on time, but this was somebody's life.
"So in saying that, I felt it was standing up for my son."
It was some solace in a nightmare that Padbury is still living, a horrific imaginary reel of her son’s final moments that flashes into focus when she's on a subway platform.
Padbury’s face is etched with lines of grief, and with an almost manic energy she walks to the spot where her son last stood. She describes trying to picture who was there, what they saw, how quickly the ambulance arrived. Then come the questions — what was he thinking? Did he suffer?
And the one that tortures her the most. Why?
"I wanted to know, if he wanted to end the pain did it end quickly?" Padbury says, stifling a sob. "I didn't want him to suffer. And I guess he was suffering, but we didn't know it."
If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention. Some warning signs include: suicidal thoughts; substance abuse; purposelessness; anxiety; feeling trapped; hopelessness and helplessness; withdrawal; anger; recklessness; mood changes.
Padbury, who works as a nurse in Windsor, Ont., had no idea about the depth of her son’s despair.
She says he had been dealing with a recent bout of depression, but seemed OK. And he had so much to live for — a young family, a promising career with the Competition Bureau of Canada.
She says his deadly decision nearly killed her, too:
"If he knew how much we all hurt from this, and how much and how long it is affecting us — and it will affect us the rest of our lives — it’s not something he would have wanted," she adds.
His death touched family, friends and colleagues, but it also contributed to an extraordinary shift in what had been a hushed conversation. When the TTC acknowledged publicly that Michael Padbury’s death was a deliberate act, it cracked the tradition of silence around suicide.
"We’re not glorifying and we’re not blaming people," O’Grady says. "But we have to talk about it."
For decades, the TTC didn’t openly address suicide on its tracks for fear it could trigger copycats. The departure from that silence is controversial.
"I think it's very good that we're talking about this, but we have to be very careful," says Dr. Mark Sinyor, a psychiatrist and research scientist at Toronto's Sunnybrook Hospital who studies suicide and the wider impact of reporting on it.
"People who are suicidal are vulnerable, and vulnerable to messaging, and we have to make sure that we get the right message out — which is that there is hope and that people care," adds Sinyor, who has helped the TTC develop its suicide prevention strategy.
'We have to make sure that we get the right message out — which is that there is hope and that people care.'
The onus, he says, is on the media to present that message of hope.
Sinyor says he has "grave concerns about disseminating information about suicide," because he says often the media frames these attempts as tragic and inevitable. He says romanticizing a "doomed to die" narrative can push other vulnerable people to the edge.
Focusing on a method of death, implicit in subway suicides, is also problematic, Sinyor adds, because it presents a tangible means.
Responsible reporting, he says, must emphasize that mental health disorders are treatable and that help exists.
And while some transit agencies, including southern Ontario's Go Transit, are beginning to address suicide more openly, others such as the Société de transport de Montréal are not. When approached for this story, STM's reply was simply that it does not discuss suicide on the metro with the media.
The risks of transparency are not lost on the Toronto Transit Commission. The need to be responsible is very clear, too.
The decision to speak more openly about suicide on the subway is one the TTC has been inching towards for the past few years, after the agency realized the problem was not getting better. When the number of incidents started to climb, O'Grady says the need for transparency grew too.
Since 2000, on average, about 20 people try to end their lives on Toronto’s subway system annually. But the numbers have been rising alarmingly, reaching 45 in 2017 and 46 in 2018.
Transit workers have also intervened with dozens more people who seemed to be in distress.
If you’re thinking about suicide or are concerned about someone, there are people you can talk to:
- Crisis Services Canada: 1-833-456-4566, text 45645, chat at crisisservicescanada.ca
- In French, Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
- Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868, chat at kidshelpphone.ca
- TTC crisis line (in Toronto): 416-408-HELP
O’Grady is a quiet, thoughtful man, but his eyes reveal flashes of frustration and determination. At his office at TTC headquarters in midtown Toronto, he pores over the latest suicide statistics.
"We can show that there's a trend line going up," he says, pointing to a series of graphs.
"So far we've done many things, which have some effect. But still the numbers are high and going up. So we're not doing enough."
The fear is that without raising awareness, especially among the million or so commuters who use the subway every day, the deadly trend will continue.
And for O'Grady and others at the TTC, that includes acknowledging that suicide on the subway happens with disturbing regularity.
Reaching for his laptop, O’Grady plays a video with the resigned air of someone who knows what’s coming. A grainy image of an elderly man shuffling along a subway platform fills the screen. The man sits down on a platform bench, clutching a framed photo. He seems morose and waits for several trains to go by. Eventually, he makes his way to the platform edge. The video ends.
"My own view is it takes a lot of courage to take your own life," O’Grady says softly. "And it's not uncommon for people to take time to do it."
The eerie moments before the man’s suicide attempt were captured by TTC cameras — the incidents are compiled for staff training purposes, to help them identify situations where they need to take action.
Letting trains go by, pacing, and disrobing are all clues that someone is in distress.
O’Grady is sharing the images publicly for the first time because he wants to humanize these stories. And more than anything, he says, he wants to change the way they end.
"Whoever is in that [photo], if that person is alive then that person is now devastated because this person died with their image in his hand," O’Grady says, pointing to the screen.
And many more are affected, too:
In an effort to address that ripple effect, the TTC recently announced a plan to dispatch mental health volunteers to stations the day after a suicide incident has occurred, in order to help traumatized witnesses.
The thinking is commuters have routine schedules and may return at the same time of day.
Out in the open
The spike in suicides on Toronto's subway is disturbing, but it’s difficult to manage. When and where the incidents happen is largely random.
The only real pattern is the lack of one.
Suicide attempts are a constant, grim expectation among subway workers. The efforts to find solutions are ever-present, too.
On a warm sunny day in April, nearly a dozen people crowded into a conference room at TTC headquarters for one of the regular suicide-prevention strategy meetings O'Grady chairs. This one fell on Easter Monday, and despite the holiday, it wasn’t rescheduled.
There was an unspoken urgency in the air and the meeting began with little ceremony. O’Grady listens intently as a station manager tells the group how, a few days earlier, a subway supervisor pulled a 17-year-old girl in distress back from an oncoming train.
The discussion turns to how to enhance front-line intervention training for transit employees. O’Grady agrees it’s a good idea.
Every option is on the table and everything is out in the open.
"You have to find a way to bring it up, to talk about it responsibly," O'Grady says. "I think probably every family in Canada has been touched by suicide. And I think people are well aware that suicide happens on the subway, so it’s not a matter of it being news to people."
It's certainly not news to transit workers, and for those who are directly involved in suicide incidents the trauma never really leaves them.
Despite his stocky frame and easy smile, there’s a vulnerability to James Deneault, a sadness that hovers like a constant companion. The veteran subway driver describes the experience that is seared into his memory.
It was four years ago, on his son’s birthday. It started off like any other day until he spotted a shadow close to the platform as he drove his train into the station.
'I didn't see his face. It was just that whole silhouette.'
"I didn't see his face. It was just that whole silhouette," he says quietly. "And, you know, maybe sometimes you'll say to yourself maybe I should have seen that before, or maybe if I would have stopped earlier. Stopped faster."
But there was no time to brake. Then a thud, the loudest sound Deneault says he’s ever heard. And screams. Deneault says he can still hear them.
"He was just screaming 'Help me, God help me. Please help me,'" Deneault says, his voice thickening. "It took me a long time to get that out of my head. Even now, you're dreaming about it. You're thinking about it all the time."
Deneault’s living nightmare reveals a shocking truth. According to TTC statistitics, roughly half of people who attempt suicide by subway survive the initial impact, and those who live have horrendous injuries.
As he continues to describe the incident, there's a sense that he’s had this conversation with himself many times.
Deneault doesn’t know what happened to the man he hit:
"And I know even now I feel emotional about that — if, if, if he did die, you know, I mean his family. Did he have brothers or sisters? He has a mom and dad.
"I want to think he survived. That's what I want. And that'll help me through my day."
Deneault was on leave for 17 months, suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder.
He could barely function at first. He had trouble sleeping and when he did, the nightmares were never-ending. Eventually, with the help of a therapist, he says he made it out of the darkness.
Deneault’s mental health recovery was harrowing, and as the number of suicide attempts climbs the TTC is facing a growing absentee rate because more employees are coping with the effects of similar experiences.
In 2017, the only year for which the TTC was able to provide up-to-date figures, 45 suicide-related incidents accounted for more than 4,000 days off, with workers involved being away from work for an average of 123 days.
The wider financial cost is also staggering. According to transit research compiled by the TTC, a single suicide incident can add up to millions of dollars in lost time for society as a whole.
Those cold costs, along with the serious human and emotional tolls, are driving a renewed push for a permanent solution.
One idea has been mused about before. Now, for the first time since a feasibility study was conducted for the TTC 15 years ago and then shelved, it’s a step closer to reality.
On a summer afternoon at one of the TTC’s busiest stations, John O’Grady leads a team from an architectural and engineering firm as they take photos and measurements. It's part of a new study to assess what it would take to build platform-edge doors, physical barriers that would only open when trains are in the station. The doors are used widely in newer Asian and European metro systems.
On this day, the team is evaluating whether the platforms in Toronto’s older stations are wide enough to accomodate the doors and strong enough to support them.
It would be complicated and costly to retrofit the aging subway system built in 1954 — at least $1 billion.
The project would require the political will to fund it, but it's the most tangible way of making subway platforms safer and O'Grady is convinced it would help.
"It’s a moral imperative," he says in a steely voice. "Knowing that we have a solution to all this loss of life, how can we not go ahead and do it? If you know there's something you can do that's going to save one life, then you are duty-bound to do that thing."
As the site survey continues, he spots a shirtless man sitting on the platform floor muttering to himself. O'Grady discreetly makes his way towards him and stands near the man until the train comes into the station.
He admits he was worried. He always is.
Platform-edge doors would not only save lives, they would mean a reprieve from the constant vigilance required from TTC staff. But even if the funding comes through, it’s still years away.
So subway officials are looking at a range of solutions.
The TTC has refreshed its crisis line posters to remind people contemplating suicide that help is only a call away (416-408-4357 or 416-408-HELP).
And there is a new strategy being launched this week: Asking commuters to intervene.
'I think the next big untapped resource is asking our customers to look at their fellow citizens and just talk to them.'
"I think the next big untapped resource is asking our customers to look at their fellow citizens and just talk to them," O’Grady says.
"You don’t have to be trained for that. Just say hello, you know, how’s the weather today, how about those Leafs, you feeling OK? Something just to break that impulse, that chain reaction. So I think that’s the next thing we can try to do until we get an engineered solution."
O’Grady says research from Middlesex University London and University of London helped launch the Small Talk Saves Lives campaign in the U.K. rail industry in 2017. The research found that a simple exhange between someone contemplating suicide and another person can break a deadly impulse.
Paul Hattlmann knows this first-hand.
As he recalls the fateful seconds on a subway platform 11 years ago, Hattlmann seems to be talking about someone else. He now has the busy energy of a man with a full life that holds the promise of more, and says the despair he felt that day, the day he wanted to die, seems so unreal and so foreign now:
It was his 25th birthday. Hattlmann, a senior solutions engineer in the telecom industry, was on his way to work. He had battled suicidal thoughts before, but as he stood on the subway platform they crashed over him, compelling him to act.
Hattlmann says he began to tremble and cry, and then he locked eyes with a man standing nearby.
"I just said, 'Can you talk to me, just talk to me?' — and he did," Hattlmann says. "He just said, 'OK what's going on, are you OK?' And I said no, I’m not OK.
"That was the start and the end of it. I got on the train and the moment I did, the moment I stood on the train, I just felt this complete sigh of relief. It was just, 'OK, I got through this.'"
The entire episode lasted mere seconds, but Hattlmann says the concern on the other man’s face was a lifeline. The moment was a turning point and set him on a path to recovery.
"I owe my life to him, I guess. I have no idea who that person is. If you walked by me right now I'd never know, I can't even remember what he looks like. But he was just a person that cared, and he was a person who did the right thing."
That’s yet another question that tortures Karen Padbury. What if someone had talked to her son that day? It was in the middle of the afternoon, there were so many people around.
"I look out here," she says, her eyes welling as she takes in the commuters gathering on the subway platform. "I think OK, where was he in this whole platform area, was somebody watching? Why didn’t somebody say, 'hey buddy,'" she adds, her arm reaching out instinctively to the empty space where her son would have stood.
"So many what-ifs, and I know I'll never get the answers. All I have is this dialogue with myself, and it keeps going on over and over again."
The stories of suffering have taken their toll on O’Grady. They sadden him, he says, and they also frustrate him because the loss of life is so needless.
So while suicide is a raw, difficult conversation, O'Grady says he believes it's one that needs to be had out loud.
"We need to shine a light on it and say, 'you wouldn't want this to happen to anybody in your family, and it is happening to other people's families, and it may happen to somebody in your family,' O'Grady says.
"I think we need to be more open in order to have that dialogue, and so that people can understand why it's so important."
Where to turn for support:
- Crisis Services Canada, 1-833-456-4566 or crisisservicescanada.ca
- Kids Help Phone, 1-800-668-6868 or kidshelpphone.ca