SMART rail agency spearheading suicide-prevention effort to curtail train deaths

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Resources For Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

Leaders of the SMART public transit agency Wednesday confronted the spate of recent train-collision fatalities by pledging to spearhead a broad suicide-prevention effort by bolstering community health services.

During the somber first meeting of the agency’s board of directors since five people have been killed after being hit by SMART trains in the past three weeks, the agency’s general manager called the dire situation a public health crisis. Three of those individuals were men who took their own lives.

“This has been an incredibly emotional few weeks,” Farhad Mansourian told Sonoma-Marin Area Rail Transit’s 12-member board. “As a community, we need to join together, commit funding and take the steps necessary to ensure our neighbors who are having a mental health crisis are taken care of. We must come up with a strategy for how we deal with suicide, impulsiveness and own this issue.”

Mansourian and board members are counting on the National Alliance on Mental Illness Sonoma County chapter, Buckelew Counseling Services of San Rafael and Sonoma County health department’s behavioral health division to help lead the regional task force intended to reduce suicides along SMART’s 43-mile rail line from San Rafael north to Charles M. Schulz Sonoma County Airport.

Those three entities are expected to work with more than 30 other organizations from Sonoma and Marin counties, including private health care providers, law enforcement, other transit operators, nonprofits and suicide-prevention groups. After the first of three suicides by train on July 9, Mansourian said he began contacting these outside experts to understand how SMART can be part of a comprehensive solution to the rigorous public health challenge.

“There’s a definite pall over the (rail) agency,” said longtime SMART board member Deb Fudge, the vice mayor of Windsor. “We’re all thinking of the families of the people who are no longer with us. This is definitely a serious and sad situation.”

As the task force gets underway, SMART board members and county residents who attended the more than two-hour public discussion Wednesday offered ideas and suggestions. They ranged from lobbying state and federal lawmakers for more money to add regional mental health resources, ramping up local police enforcement of trespassers on the SMART tracks and changing the way the rail agency, local media and county sheriff’s offices talk about suicide and train-collision fatalities to avoid potential copycat incidents.

State Sen. Mike McGuire, D-Healdsburg, said he’s ready to partner on potential solutions. In recent conversations with rail agency board members, McGuire has promised to help any way he can.

Although Mansourian had previously said all options are on the table including increasing rail safety, discussion centered much less on safety improvements than on mental health during Wednesday’s gathering. In earlier reaction to the string of train fatalities, Sonoma County leaders have suggested ideas like sounding the train horn at rail crossings, or even halting train service for a temporary period. The rail agency’s staff members did report they hoped to recruit another safety officer to help the single officer who now has the entire task of keeping people, including those living in homeless encampments that pop up along or near the rail line, away from the SMART tracks.

In response to the train deaths, Gary Phillips, mayor of San Rafael and chairman of the SMART board, said he had already developed a six-part plan for his city that he hoped other municipalities along the rail line would consider using in their communities. The plan includes mental health outreach to the most susceptible populations of adolescent students and the homeless, as well as a regional social media campaign to raise awareness about rail safety and suicide prevention.

Resources For Help

North Bay Suicide Prevention 24-hour hotline: 855-587-6373

NAMI Sonoma County: 707-527-6655

Sonoma County Psychiatric Emergency Services: 707-576-8181

For information on Sonoma County support groups, call 707-527-6655 or go to namisonomacounty.org

Still, behavioral health experts say it’s an uphill battle, particularly with the death-by-suicide trend on the rise in the region, state and nation. A generational segment of the trend might help understand why four of the five suicides along the SMART tracks since the agency started passenger train service in August 2017 were men in their 60s.

Dr. Alexander Threlfall, chief of psychiatry at Santa Rosa Community Health, said an overwhelmed mental health system coupled with stigmas among the baby boomer generation is leading to increased suicide among men in that age range.

“We are really in trouble with people in the community trying to access affordable psychiatric services,” said Threlfall, a board-certified geriatric psychiatrist.

Nationally, older white males account for nearly 80% of suicides, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Factors like financial strain and isolation are often the biggest risk factors among this generation, Threlfall said.

“This generation still comes from a place where reaching out for mental health services is fairly stigmatized over the course of their lifetime,” he said.

Potential remedies are screening older patients for depression and having a behavioral health therapist on hand during routine doctor appointments, Threlfall said.

Mansourian and SMART board members acknowledged they need and want guidance from mental health experts like Threlfall.

“It is a community issue and I would hope that we as an agency will be able to learn from them. Because we’re not going to solve this by ourselves,” said Chris Rogers, Santa Rosa’s vice mayor who sits on the rail agency’s board.

SMART’s operations leader stressed Wednesday that the mushrooming suicide crisis is bigger than the rail agency and can’t be resolved by the agency alone.

“This is not just a SMART issue,” Mansourian said. “This is not just the train. This is everybody’s problem. We as a rail agency certainly must play a role. We can bring all the (rail crossing) gates and all the security people, but if we don’t deal with the mental health crisis, we have not addressed the issue the way we should.”

You can reach Staff Writer Kevin Fixler at 707-521-5336 or kevin.fixler@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @kfixler. Staff Writer Alexandria Bordas is available at 707-521-5337 or alexandria.bordas@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @crossingbordas.

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