Sunday, May 9, 2010

What Philip Pagano Teaches Us About Suicide

Philip Pagano, age 60, of Crystal Lake, Illinois, died on Friday.  He intentionally walked in front of a Metra Commuter Rail train in one of the many suicide-by-train incidents that occur every year on our nations tracks.  This is sufficiently common, actually, that it might not have made the news outside of the Chicago area at all were it not for two factors.  First, Philp Pagano was under investigation for giving himself a $56,000 bonus at work.  Second, his job was Executive Director of Metra.

Some would say it is ironic that Pagano killed himself with one of his company's own trains.  Others might call it some kind of poetic justice.  Both of these characterizations treat Pagano's method of suicide as random, but of course it was not.  He chose to kill himself using a Metra train.  That choice was neither ironic nor poetic.  There are, however, at least two possible explanations for it.

First of all, people who die by suicide tend to choose methods that are easily available to them.  The most glaring example of this is that police officers who kill themselves very disproportionately use firearms, with the attendant result that police officers who attempt suicide very disproportionately die.  People who do not have access to guns do not kill themselves with guns.  Very few people go out and buy a gun to kill themselves with.  Police officers wear a highly lethal method of attempting suicide on their belt every day.

Similarly, people who do not ride commuter trains or live near a track are unlikely to kill themselves by stepping in front of one.  Pagano, on the other hand, rode the train to work every day and was around them at work all the time.  He had been placed on leave and so was not riding the train on Friday, but he knew when and where that particular train would be because, until the end of April, he rode it every day.  Being in the business he was in, furthermore, he had lots of exposure to suicide by train.  It's hardly surprising that, when he chose to kill himself, he chose a method so easily available and with which he was so familiar.

Secondly, conventional wisdom suggests that people, at least sometimes, choose a method and/or place to kill themselves as a way to send a message.  The most obvious examples of this are terrorists who use their death as a political statement by killing themselves and taking others with them.  The man who flew his plane into an IRS office earlier this year clearly had a statement to make.

People don't necessarily have to have something political to say when they choose how to kill themselves, however.  Many people who attempt suicide give quite a bit of thought to who will probably find them and how they will feel about it.  It's not uncommon for people to choose to kill themselves in a particular location as a way of showing how negative they feel about that place and the people in it.  On the other hand, it's also not uncommon for people to choose to kill themselves away from the people they love in an effort to spare them some anguish.  This is not always true, certainly -- sometimes people kill themselves in a place that is convenient for them without any particular message -- but it undoubtedly happens.  It's not too much of a stretch to imagine that Pagano had some kind of negative message for Metra or the people there which he conveyed by using a Metra train to kill himself, or that he wanted to say, "This train was responsible for my successes and my failures, and now it's responsible for my death."

Philip Pagano had a wife, children and grandchildren.  He chose not to kill himself at home, and, in fact his wife was out of town.  Perhaps he wanted to spare her in some small way.  If there is any irony in these situations, it is that not only is that probably small comfort to her and the rest of his family, it may actually make things worse.  It is one of the hardest things about suicide that someone could think their actions through enough to know they shouldn't die where their family is, but not enough to know they shouldn't kill themselves at all.


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Naomi Zikmund-Fisher
is a clinical social worker, former school Principal and a Crisis Consultant for schools and community organizations. You can learn more about her at
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