The Brian Lehrer Show

Middle Aged Suicide Rates; NJ Good Samaritan Overdose Law; NYC Water History; College Bubble

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The suicide rates for middle-aged people have spiked. Paula Clayton, medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention explains. Plus: Tom Moran of the Star-Ledger discusses the new Good Samaritan drug overdose law and the politics behind it; the political history of New York City's water supply; and the college cost bubble.

The Brian Lehrer Show

Why Are Suicide Rates Rising For Middle-Aged Adults?

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

A new report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has found that more Americans commit suicide than die in car crashes. The rate is rising among middle-aged Americans in particular. Paula Clayton, medical director for the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, talks about the numbers, what might be behind the increase, and prevention.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

The Life and Work of David Foster Wallace

Tuesday, April 30, 2013

D. T. Max talks about his biography of David Foster Wallace, one of the most influential writers of his generation. In Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, Max charts Wallace’s battle to succeed as a novelist as he fights off depression and addiction to emerge with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Since his death by suicide at the age of forty-six in 2008, Wallace has become a symbol of sincerity and honesty in an inauthentic age.

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Life of the Law

Full Interview with Justin Helzer

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Justin Helzer died Sunday night, April 14th. He committed suicide inside his cell on San Quentin's Death Row (the cell in this photo). If you look closely you can see him sitting on his bunk, leaning against the door.


Life of the Law

Without Means

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

More than 30,000 people died by guns in 2011 in the US. Of those, close to 20,000 died by suicide. Many still do not make a connection between gun availability and suicide rates, but a growing body of research suggests otherwise.


The Leonard Lopate Show

A Life of David Foster Wallace

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

D. T. Max talks about his biography of David Foster Wallace, one of the most influential writers of his generation who not only captivated readers with his prose but also mesmerized them with his brilliant mind. In Every Love Story Is a Ghost Story: A Life of David Foster Wallace, Max charts Wallace’s battle to succeed as a novelist as he fights off depression and addiction to emerge with his masterpiece, Infinite Jest. Since his death by suicide at the age of forty-six in 2008, Wallace has become a symbol of sincerity and honesty in an inauthentic age.

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Transportation Nation

Death On The Tracks: Its Human Cost & The Labor Fight It Has Provoked

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

NYC subway train operator Ed Goetzl, an 11-year vet, has been at the controls for a pair of 12-9s, transit shorthand for someone hit by a train.

(New York, NY - WNYC) A spate of deaths on the subway tracks has led to a confrontation between the NY Metropolitan Transportation Authority and the union representing train operators. The two sides disagree about how to reduce the number of deaths, which take a serious toll on the train operators who witness them while piloting their trains.

Train operator Ed Goetzl has had two 12-9s -- transit shorthand for hitting someone with a train. In both cases, a woman tried to commit suicide by lying on the tracks. One lived, the other did not. He says he took no more than five days off to recover, and claims that's because he didn't blame himself for the incidents.

"See, I didn't kill them," Goeztl said. "They committed suicide and I was the instrument of their suicide. That's how I look at it."

On average, three people a week are hit by subway trains and one dies. Sometimes these incidents come in clumps. Right now, we're in a clump.

Twelve people have been hit by subway trains in the three weeks since a woman pushed Sunando Sen in front of a 7 train in Queens on December 27th. Sen died, and the woman has been charged with second degree murder.

The Transport Workers Union says each death leaves a train operator prone to nightmares, trauma and the impulse to withdraw from others. After a 12-9, operators get three days off at full pay. They can also take unpaid or disability leave for up to a year. It usually takes them three to six months to return to the job.

This week, the union distributed a flyer and sent a sharp letter to MTA management. The union wants the MTA to order trains approaching stations to slow down from 30 miles per hour to 10 miles per hour to give operators more time to brake if there's a person on the tracks.

The authority doesn't like the idea. Spokesman Adam Lisberg says operators who slow trains without permission are taking part in an illegal job action that could get them suspended. It would also lead to fewer trains running per hour at some times, and potentially to overcrowding on platforms, a danger in an of itself.

Ed Goetzl disapproves: "What's really offensive is management's concept that this is about a work slow down rather than what it's really about, which is the safety of the riding public." And of train operators.

Psychologist Howard Rombom has been treating train operators for 15 years. He says motormen react in many different ways after 12-9s, but that all of them are deeply affected. At his office in Great Neck, where hundreds of traumatized train operators have sat in a chair and looked out the window at the waters of Manhasset Bay, he talks about how a 12-9 can shake up the strongest-seeming train operator.

"I remember one worker, he was a big guy, the kind of guy you wouldn't think would get upset by a situation just by virtue of the physical presence," Rombom said. "He was involved with a 12-9 episode where he hit someone coming into the station. Someone jumped in front of the train -- smiled, waved and jumped."

The operator stopped the train and calmly went through the required procedures: he found the body, did interviews with the police and MTA supervisors and submitted to a drug test. His wife and children were supportive. But as time went by, his mind kept replaying the scene. He couldn't concentrate or sleep at night and had trouble connecting to the people around him.

"He felt sort of out of it, socially separate from everybody else. He said, 'I just don't feel like myself. I want to be alone,'" Rombom said.

The man needed months of therapy, sleep medication and conversations with his fellow operators before he felt better, Rombom says. Then one day, he was ready to drive a train again.

Such recoveries are usually private affairs. But the spate of recent highly publicized deaths has spurred the union to collective action. In the end, train deaths are rare--an average of 50 out of 1.6 billion riders per year. The MTA says that number is tragically high, but not high enough to slow the entire system down.

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Veterans Take Stock of 2012, Look Forward to 2013

Monday, December 31, 2012

It’s been more than a year since U.S. forces withdrew from Iraq, and for many veterans the last twelve months have been spent readjusting to life on the homefront. As 2012 draws to a close, veterans and the groups and agencies that support them are taking a look at the progress of the past year, and what else still needs to be done in the coming year, to help service men and women returning home from war.

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With Trials Complete, Little Closure for Family of Pvt. Danny Chen

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

A day after the final courts-martial, the family of Pvt. Danny Chen said they were disappointed by the outcome of the trials of eight soldiers from their son’s platoon who were charged with hazing and abuse that culminated in his suicide two years ago.

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The Leonard Lopate Show

Military Suicides

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

While only 1 percent of Americans have served in Iraq and Afghanistan—they account for 20 percent of U.S. suicides; an active duty soldier commits suicide every day on average, about as many as are dying on the battlefield. Mark Thompson, Time Deputy Washington Bureau Chief, and Nancy Gibbs, Time Deputy Managing Editor, discuss the situation, which they call the military's "ultimate asymmetrical war," and one it is losing.  Thompson and Gibbs spoke with two widows of soldiers who killed themselves a continent apart on the same day—March 21, 2012. The army had clear warning signs that these men were at risk. Their article “The War on Suicide” appears in the July 23 issue of Time.


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Transportation Nation

Caltrain Engineer: Every Time I Go Past The Scene of a Fatality, It Plays Back Like a Video

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Caltrain station in San Francisco, photo by Julie Caine

In the past six weeks, five people have died on on Northern California's commuter rail tracks, hit by trains that could not stop in time to avoid them. Every year, an average of 12 people die on Caltrain tracks, and most are suicides. This is a small percentage of suicide deaths each year – only about one percent of suicides in the U.S. are by train.

Caltrain has built ten-foot fences along much of the route, commissioned studies about location and prevention, put up signs with suicide hotline numbers along its tracks, and partnered with mental health agencies. But the problem persists.

And not just on Caltrain. In 2011, 702 people died on train tracks nationwide. Suicides are a small percentage of these deaths, but they have serious emotional consequences – not only for the loved ones of the people who kill themselves, but for the men and women who drive and work on trains.

Charles is a locomotive engineer for Caltrain. That’s not his real name; he asked us not to use it. Charles is the one of people who drives the trains between San Jose and San Francisco. He’s been working on the railroad for more than 30 years, and for the most part he loves his job.

“I’ve tried to quit the railroad several times,” says Charles. “And I don’t know if it was in my blood, or…I’m a third generation railroader, so I was always pulled back to the railroad. I like the lifestyle. I like the money. I’ve raised a family on the railroad.”

But there’s a part of his job that never gets easier—witnessing people die under the wheels of his trains.

“I’ve had two since January first. That’s kind of high for me. I average one a year. You never know when it’s going to happen. You never know,” says Charles.

Train engineers like Charles may not know when it’s going to happen, but they do know that, sooner or later, it is going to happen. Trains aren’t like cars. They weigh 400 tons. You can’t just slam on the brakes and stop.

“The way I kind of look at it, the farther I am from my last one, the closer I am to my next one,” he says. “It’s almost like rolling the dice. It’s an awful tragedy.”

On Caltrain, a typical crew is made up of three people—the engineer, and two conductors, who work with passengers. When someone is hit, the conductors are the first people to go out on the tracks to find them. The engineer is usually the last to see the person alive.

“It's an interesting thing though how in the heat of the battle, we kind of go on automatic, and it don't sink in until we've been rescued from the scene and we're taken away,” says Charles. “I’ve seen people break down afterwards. You know, I want to break down. Sometimes my ego and my pride keep me from it, but inside I'm dying.”

When they’re first hired, crew members are told that bad things may happen on the tracks and any crew member involved in a death gets paid time off and access to counseling. But not everybody takes advantage of it. Laurie Richer is a clinical psychiatrist at University of California San Francisco. She says part of the problem is that this kind of emotional trauma isn’t necessarily something crews are trained to deal with.

“As opposed to first responders--EMS, paramedics, police--that come to a scene, they have some degree of emotional preparedness,” says Richer. “Whereas a train driver doesn't. So they're not trained or prepared, or it wasn't a motivation in choosing that line of work. So these tragedies happen to them right out of the blue.”

Richer says the emotional trauma that can result in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). It’s something we often associate with soldiers coming home from war. Basically, when we’re in danger, our adrenaline kicks in and we go into survival mode. The problem is that once the danger has passed, we can get stuck in that heightened state—unable to stop reliving the trauma, unable to stop being on the lookout for more danger, and with a strong urge to avoid the place where the trauma happened.

That’s the problem for train crews—they can’t avoid the place where the death happened. And they can’t avoid the fact that another one could happen at any time.

“It’s difficult because every time I go past the scene of where I’ve had a fatality, it plays back like a video,” says Charles. “Your first nature is to crawl in your hole and just pull the covers over your head – and many people do that, you know. They don't answer the phone after that. And that's probably the worst thing you can do, cause you just sit there with that rolling around in your head. It just destroys your sleep for several days.”

Laurie Richer says the best thing you can do after a serious trauma is to reach out for help as soon as possible and talk about how you’re feeling.

“What that does is it validates the response,” says Richer. “It helps individuals realize that they're not alone in their response, that in fact it's more common than not to experience some of the symptoms of PTSD. And also, peers provide ideas for how they got support. And seeking help becomes more acceptable.”

Seeking—and giving—help is something Charles has learned how to do in his long career on the railroad. He talks to friends and a counselor, and makes it a point to reach out to other crew members who have experienced trauma.

“I don't get to spend too much time thinking about mine if I'm helping others, and that works for me,” says Charles. “Plus I have a great network of friends who support me. They prop me up when I can’t stand on my own. They help me through these difficult times. I’m really blessed. I feel like the luckiest man on earth sometimes.”

Charles doesn’t blame Caltrain for the deaths. Track fatalities are part of the job, he says, all over the world.

“Caltrain goes to great lengths to keep that from happening,” he says. “They have ten-foot fences along the whole line. It’s not because of any negligence. It would be nice to prevent all of it, but that's dreaming. But we're trying. And anything that we can do to have some kind of effect on it, if it saves one life, it's worth it. That's why I agreed to do this interview. If it saves one person from this, it's a wonderful thing, and I'm honored to be able to do it.”

On a warm Saturday afternoon in June, several thousand people are gathered at San Francisco’s Fort Mason.

It’s a sea of blue t-shirts. The back of each shirt reads: “I’ll be up all night for--” followed by a blank line. People have filled in the words: “I’ll be up all night for my mother, for my father, for my Uncle Tim.” Other people have written in names, followed by dates—dates of birth, and dates of death.

The annual Out of the Darkness walk is a suicide awareness event held in different cities around the country. This year, people spent all night walking the streets of San Francisco, raising money for suicide prevention and research. There are a lot of individuals, and a lot of families. And this year, there’s also a group of eight Caltrain staff members.

April Maguigad works in the operations department at Caltrain. She’s leading tonight’s Caltrain walkers.

“I just recently moved to the Bay Area from Virginia in January,” she says. “I think it was probably right around the third fatality that we had here at Caltrain since my moving here that I decided that I needed a way to cope and deal with it.”

Ted Yurek is also on the Caltrain team.

“We've kind of taken a position of instead of not talking about it, talking about it more,” says Yurek. “And hopefully this helps promote that point of view, that you should be more open about depression and suicide as things that happen.”

Since the night of the walk, the Caltrain team has raised $12,000 to help people who have lost loved ones to suicide. Donations are still coming in. Maguidad say the walk gives people a sense that there’s support––that there are people who understand what it’s like to go through a suicide, and who want to offer help.

“It is a sense of sadness that you know this is a person who has chosen quite a tragic way to end their life,” says Maguigad. “You wonder about their family, and you wonder about the people they're leaving behind. It's not just another delay, it's somebody's family member.”

If you, or someone you know, is in suicidal crisis or emotional distress please call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) right away. Help is there for you, and you are not alone. You can also read about suicide warning signs and prevention strategies here.

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Suicides Surging Among US Troops

Thursday, June 07, 2012

Suicides are surging among America's troops, averaging nearly one a day this year - the fastest pace in the nation's decade of war.



A 12-Year-Old Hangs Himself, and His Family Says He Was Bullied

Friday, June 01, 2012

Students and parents said on Thursday that Joel Morales was bullied in his East Harlem neighborhood and at school before he hanged himself on Tuesday in his apartment.

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Slate Culture Gabfest

The Culture Gabfest: Heeeeere's Johnny (Depp) Edition

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Slate critics Stephen Metcalf, Dana Stevens, and Julia Turner discuss the new film Dark Shadows, a new documentary on Johnny Carson, and what the conversation about football head injuries and suicide says about our culture.


The Takeaway

The Real Story Behind Tyler Clementi's Tragic Death

Friday, February 03, 2012

In September 2010, Tyler Clementi's name became synonymous with bullying, suicide, and the "It Gets Better" project. But while many sensational headlines made it seem as though Clementi was unwillingly outed via a sex tape made available on the internet, the real story is significantly different and far more complicated. New accounts of the case published this week in the New Yorker and OUT magazine — the latter of which was written by Clementi's older brother — reveal the role race, class, and personality had to do with this devastating story.

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City Council Examines Increase in Suicide Rates for Vets

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

The Committee on Veterans held a joint session Tuesday with the Committee on Mental Health, Mental Retardation, Alcoholism, Drug Abuse and Disability Services, to look into the disturbing rise in the number of veterans committing suicide.

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High Suicide Rate Among Veterans Sparks Council Probe

Tuesday, October 11, 2011


One out of every five suicides in the country is committed by a military veteran, federal statistics show, and some city lawmakers are hoping to mitigate what they say is a growing but preventable health problem.

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The Takeaway

White House Lifts Ban on Sending Condolences After Military Suicides

Thursday, July 07, 2011

When a soldier dies in a combat zone, the family can expect certain official gestures. Men in uniform will fire a salute. A flag will be folded into a neat triangle. And a letter will arrive, signed by the president, expressing thanks for their loved one's service to the country, and condolences for their loss. That is, unless a soldier died by their own hand.

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The Takeaway

'How to Die in Oregon': New Documentary Explores Assisted Suicide

Thursday, May 26, 2011

The documentary "How to Die in Oregon" premieres tonight on HBO. The film follows a woman named Cody Curtis as she suffers from liver cancer and, ultimately, makes the decision to end her life. It’s a difficult subject. Yet critics have described this documentary as “uplifting” and even “life-affirming.” Peter Richardson is the director of "How to Die in Oregon." He and Stan Curtis, the husband of the woman portrayed in the film, talk about the process of making the film and why the story needed to be told.

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The Takeaway

Is it Enough to Tell Gay Kids 'It Gets Better'?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

On Tuesday, we spoke to writer and advice columnist Dan Savage about his message to young gay people: Hold on, it gets better. We got a call from one gay listener who thinks that message just isn't enough. "Stephen," (not his real name) says that in order to address the recent spate of suicides among gay teens, teachers and other adults should work on making life better for teenagers right now.

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