"Suicide prevention is everyone's responsibility" was the message at the unveiling of Caltrain's new webpage for suicide prevention at the San Mateo Caltrain Station on Wednesday, Oct. 1.
As part of Railroad Safety Month, Caltrain launched a special page on its website dedicated to suicide-prevention information and outreach. The page includes a crisis hotline number and links to local, regional and national resources.
"I would venture to say that everyone here has some personal experience with suicide or mental illness," said Caltrain spokeswoman Jayme Ackemann. "I, myself, lost my husband and high school sweetheart when my daughter was just 1 (year old) to suicide, so it's a very personal issue for me. We are experts at running a railroad; we are not experts at preventing suicide, and that is why we work with our community partners to look for answers."
Ackemann said there is no single solution, but "we know suicide can be prevented ... and people in our community are working toward prevention and erasing the stigma surrounding mental health by shining a light on this issue.
"We hope that of the millions of people who visit Caltrain's web page every year, some will be helped by the information," she said.
Four experts who have been affected by suicide spoke at the event, including Victor Ojakian, Suicide Prevention Oversight Committee co-chair; Dr. Ken Smith with the Suicide Prevention Speakers Bureau of the Santa Clara County Mental Health Department; Bevin Love, assistant director of Stamp Out Stigma; and deputy Sal Zuno of the Caltrain Transit Police Bureau.
Former Palo Alto councilman and mayor Ojakian lost his son Adam to suicide in 2004 at the age of 21. Ojakian and his wife, Mary, have since lobbied to ensure California's public colleges have student-mental health advisory committees so that students on campus are as safe as they can be and individuals who are considered at-risk can receive help.
The Ojakians have advocated for suicide-prevention resources for students at every level. He referenced the cluster of deaths of five Palo Alto students in 2009 and 2010 on the Caltrain tracks.
"I was asked at one stage if I would help set up a committee in Santa Clara County to address the matter of suicide -- not just because of the deaths of the children in Palo Alto but because of the deaths of so many people in Santa Clara County," Ojakian said.
Nearly 40,000 suicides were reported throughout the United States in 2011, Ojakian said. But what doesn't get talked about is the state statistic -- just under 4,000 people.
"There is a good possibility when next year's data gets release that we will cross that threshold," Ojakian said.
"California has a public health crisis," he said. "People don't want to talk about it that way, but that's what it is. You don't lose that many lives and cavalierly go by without recognizing the magnitude of how many people have died."
There has been an average of 13 deaths a year on Caltrain tracks, the majority were caused by suicide, according to a Caltrain press release.
"Although suicides on the Caltrain right-of-way make up only 3 percent of suicides in the Peninsula region, they are the focus of public attention because they impact so many people," according to the press release.
"Caltrain has been a significant partner in trying to prevent suicide," Ojakian said. "They understand that it's not just the deaths on the tracks where people are taking their lives, but there is something that happens before that and there is a significant impact on our community."
Other suicide-prevention efforts Caltrain has been involved in include spending $110,000 to erect 250 new "There is Help" signs along a 10-mile stretch that includes Palo Alto, Menlo Park and Mountain View in 2010 and in 2012; and a team of San Mateo County Transit District employees raised nearly $12,000 in the Out of the Darkness Overnight fundraiser, an 18-mile walk in San Francisco, which benefits the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.