Caltrain officials said Monday that the best way to deter teen suicides on Caltrain tracks is to address mental health issues on a community level and tone down news coverage of the deaths of several young people at a Palo Alto crossing since May.
Caltrain spokesman Mark Simon said at a news conference in San Carlos on Monday morning that the transit agency's employees are "devastated" by each death, including that of a 13-year-old girl on Friday. The girl was struck and killed at about 10:45 p.m. at the East Meadow Drive crossing in Palo Alto.
On May 5, a 17-year-old boy was struck and killed by a train at the same crossing. On June 2, a 17-year-old girl was killed there. Both teens were students at Gunn High School and both deaths appeared to be suicides.
On June 4, the mother of another Gunn student called Palo Alto police to report that her son was acting strangely and heading for the train tracks. Officers restrained the teen as he headed toward the East Meadow Drive crossing with what police said were suicidal intentions.
Administrators at the Palo Alto Unified School District and Gunn High School said they are not commenting on Friday's death, or Caltrain's statements regarding suicide prevention. An assistant to PAUSD Superintendent Kevin Skelly said that administrators are still planning the support and resources they will make available to students when school starts on Tuesday.
Caltrain is committed to preventing further deaths, Simon said, and is participating in a mental health task force in Palo Alto.
The agency conducts regular training for its transit security deputies and others to help them spot different types of mental illness, and defuse situations where people wish to harm themselves, according to Simon.
Caltrain considers awareness tactics more effective than reactive measures, such as surveillance cameras and extra police patrols, he said.
In the wake of the three deaths, the natural desire is to focus on rail safety, Simon said. However, trains weigh more than 1 million pounds and -- traveling at top speeds of 70 miles per hour -- require a mile and a half to come to a complete stop.
Simon said it is more realistic, and effective, to address the mental health issues behind these deaths than to focus on the tracks themselves.
Caltrain's service area, which includes San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties, sees an average of 300 suicide deaths a year, he said. An average of nine of those deaths occur each year on Caltrain's right of way.
"We have to find a way to encourage people not to step in front of our trains," he said. "You can't stop the train the way people would like us to."
So far in 2009, Caltrain has staged 13 successful crisis interventions on or near its tracks, according to David Triolo, Caltrain's chief of protective services. In many of these instances, family and friends who "sensed something was amiss" contacted 911 in time for officers to arrive at the tracks, he said.
An adolescent mental health expert from Stanford University joined Caltrain in addressing the role news coverage plays in suicide deaths.
Shashank Joshi, an assistant professor of psychiatry, pediatrics and education at Lucile Packard Children's Hospital at Stanford, said media coverage is a factor in the cluster of similar deaths.
It is difficult to say with certainty whether the second and third Caltrain fatalities were "copycat deaths," he said. But the extensive media coverage "hasn't helped."
Reporting details about a victim's life, and a "play-by-play" of what happened in their final moments "can glorify the act in a way that is not helpful, and can potentially be harmful," he said.
Research suggests that using the term "death by suicide" rather than "committing suicide" can decrease the chances of copycats, according to Joshi.
He also said news stories about suicide victims may mention factors like romantic troubles or losing a job. Such overly simple deductions ignore the reality that more than 90 percent of suicide victims have a diagnosable mental illness, he said.
Joshi is also participating in the task force, which he described as a newly formed consortium of groups in Palo Alto, including hospitals, the school district and local mental health providers.
"Access to care is a big issue," he said of the area's mental health needs. People who need treatment face barriers related to cost, insurance coverage and general stigmas surrounding mental health care, he said.
The local group Adolescent Counseling Services provides counseling at area high schools and middle schools, as well as off campus in Palo Alto and Menlo Park. Local nonprofit Kara also provides grief counseling and support groups.