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From the Other Side of the Suicide Prevention Lifeline

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Ring… Ring…

Anxiety builds as the line clicks and someone on the other end answers. They identify themselves as a crisis counselor of a local crisis center. The caller’s words don’t quite come out right on the first try, but a deep sigh has no trouble slipping out…

“What’s going on?” the friendly voice on the other end asks. The counselor is trying to connect, to get a better understanding of the situation.

Ring… Ring…

A father is in desperate need of some help for his daughter. She’s been texting him all night from her dorm room. She won’t answer his calls. Her last text just says, “Bye, Dad. I love u.” He’s keeping it together just long enough to type in the numbers 800-273-8255. He thinks those was the right ones. His breaths are coming in sharp, short wisps as the line clicks and someone answers his call.

Ring… Ring…

Another call. This one’s from a young man, just out of high school. He’s been sitting under a local bridge with a knife. He called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline about 45 minutes ago, was routed to his local crisis center and he’s been speaking with Megan. Speaking might be a stretch — he’s mostly been sobbing and wiping his face with his plaid sleeve. When she asks him if he’s thinking about suicide, he can only manage to nod and whimper a “yes.” No one had ever asked him this before and hearing it so clearly spoken made his muscles weak with relief. Megan gives him time to cry and listens, encouraging him to talk only when he’s ready. She’s been listening intently and giving him the space he needs to explain his reasons for wanting to die. He’s still not sure about going through with it and when Megan had asked him to put the knife out of sight while they spoke, he had complied, burying it under some loose gravel underneath his feet. And that was just it; he still wasn’t sure about going through with it. Megan asks him if he could spend some more time with her on the phone to talk about his reasons for dying, his reasons for living and a third option — staying safe for now. He really likes that last option.

Ring… Ring…

The sound of the crisis line ringing is one that comes with mixed emotions for anyone who’s answered the call. Crisis call center staff and volunteers from every center share a bond stronger than most — it’s made up of adrenaline, fear, wisdom, experience, expertise, unpredictability and hope. Every time we pick up that phone, our focus is on saving a life. It doesn’t matter who’s on the other end, we’re intensely aware they are calling us for a very specific purpose. They’re on the edge, the precipice of losing all hope. No call is the same and every conversation is different. And we’re meant to be the hope bearers, the light bringers. Our only job is to shine a light on the hope callers already have — and allow them to make it brighter. This bond is something that translates through the phone line as well; it connects us directly with the caller. Their fear, pain, anger and desolate sadness is something we accept and take on, feel it with them. We’re immediately brought closer to the human existence in that moment, both caller and counselor, as it is literally a tipping point. There are few other services in the entire world that do what crisis call center staff and volunteers do on a regular basis, which makes them all the more vital.

Working on the crisis line can provide someone with language to explain their own inner turmoil as well. Studies have shown volunteering in this capacity actually helps people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide. There’s some shared experience here, not the least of which is why peer support lines and services are so important. Training and increased emotional capacity, understanding of resiliency skills, coping techniques, all form a junk drawer for these crisis counselors to rummage through during their own time of need. It helps to build confidence, not only in their ability to speak with others, but in their ability to fit in, to find purpose.

I purposefully do not refer to my lowest moments as suicide “attempts,” to avoid devaluing those who have struggled more or been through worse. However, I believe it’s important to talk about those two moments here, especially in the context of what answering crisis calls can do for a person. One of my moments involved serious self-harm that rapidly sped into “intent to die” territory. The other involved heights. Luckily, people were there in both moments to stop it all from ending. And both moments fled out of my memory as soon as they had happened. Only after receiving training and starting on the phones at my local crisis line, several years later, did I realize, “I’ve been where this person is. Was that really me? Did I really almost do those things? When I was going to kill myself, how did I not? How can that help this person?” The emotional intelligence was there, had always been inside, but now I had the language to package it in. That bubble wrapped package that had been stored away somewhere, deep in my brain basement, was what I had been using to help folks on the phones. Their pain was my pain. Their words were my words. Their relief was my relief.

Of course, this isn’t to say crisis center staff or volunteers are the only ones who can fight suicide every day. We all can. We all must. Even those with years and decades of experience in suicide prevention and research (including members of the American Association of Suicidology, the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention and all the other major players, big and small) can play a major role in shifting the paradigm from suicide to suicide prevention. We can all start by listening. We need to listen to the voices of those who have lost loved ones — daughters, sons, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, teachers, co-workers, strangers. We need to listen to the voices of those who lived through attempts, as well as their loved ones. We have to listen to those who are struggling right now. Only by listening do we open up space for their voices to be heard and start to change the culture. Only by listening do we all learn and once we learn, we can start doing. These are the lessons crisis center staff and volunteers hear every single shift and every single time they pick up the phone.

Furthermore, crisis centers are typically not limited to just answering phones. Many train in suicide prevention and intervention to local schools, businesses and first responders, strengthening the overall resolve of their communities. Many are actively collaborating with local behavioral and health care organizations to build a strong foundation of continuity of care and follow-up. Many crisis centers have mobile outreach teams responsible for providing support to individuals in need where they are. Crisis centers all over the country are exploring innovative ways to provide suicide prevention and intervention services using leading edge technology like chat or tele-medicine. But many are completely unable to do these things due to limitations in funding.

Crisis centers are vital in our constant, ongoing struggle to end suicide. But many go from month to month wondering if they’ll be able to stay open or if they will have to reduce the number of phone lines they operate. Many wonder if another round of funding cuts at a state level will affect them again. Many wonder if they will be able to pay their staff through the next month. Crisis centers are vital in our constant, ongoing struggle to end suicide. We can do more and we can do better. Again, everybody can play a part here. Call your local crisis center and ask how you can help. Maybe it’s donating time or money. Maybe it’s helping with an upcoming activity. Get involved and stay involved. Participate in a training and continue to educate yourself on things that are constantly changing in this field – terminology, intervention resources, best practices, media recommendations and all the other things. Participate in the ongoing Lifeline #Bethe1To campaign. Share, like, tweet, comment all over social media about suicide prevention. Make it normal to talk about suicide prevention. Talk to each other. Listen.

Ring… Ring…

Author’s note: Special thanks to Amelia Lehto for the writing prompt and her ultimate compassion; Bart Andrews for his wisdom, leadership, and always inspiring thoughts on the powerful bond between caller and counselor; Dese’Rae Lynn Stage for her strong message of healing, hope, recovery, and lived expertise; Shye Louis for her constant support; April Foreman and Tony Wood for creating a place for everyone to feel heard; every person who chooses to share their story; and to all the heroes who answer calls, texts, chats, emails, and door knocks every day.

If you or someone you know needs help, visit our suicide prevention resources page.

If you need support right now, call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. You can reach the Crisis Text Line by texting “START” to 741-741.

Originally published: October 6, 2016
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