Twice a week, for six weeks during our intensive training to be suicide hotline volunteers, the thirty of us eagerly absorbed suicide statistics. We raptly listened to suicide survivors’ tales. We fought back tears when those who’d lost loved ones to suicide described for us the never-ending reverberations of living in the wake of a type of death that for many is nearly impossible to come to terms with, even decades after the fact.
When the group leaders rolled out the “Suicide Quilt” with photographs of local people who’d killed themselves we were astounded at how ordinary they all looked, how happy they appeared. They beamed back at us from their little squares, the dates of their birth and suicide below them, male and female, all races and ages. The oldest was in his seventies. The youngest was twelve. It was so different from say an AIDS quilt where everyone on it is united by the same disease. There was something illogically lonely about the “Suicide Quilt”. I had to turn my head away.
We role-played. We listened to live calls. We learned the questions to ask a suicidal person to quickly assess their intent and the severity of the situation. We took tests. We were given lists of area resources, referrals, numbers to call for additional help. We had it drummed into our heads that we were not doctors, counselors or mental health professionals. Our only goal was to make sure the suicidal caller was safe for the next 24 hours.
When they finally turned us loose, pairing us up and assigning us our own shifts in a stuffy little room on the second floor of the mental health center, a room so small three literally was a crowd, we were nervous of course, but we felt more than prepared after all that training. We were pumped. We were ready. We had all the tools necessary to be suicide warriors, saving lives, helping desperate souls, giving them renewed hope and a reason to live.
And as we came to find out, once in a great while we actually got the opportunity to do just that.
But the reality of answering a suicide hotline was so different from the way it was portrayed during training, it’s not a stretch to say at first it was something of a letdown. And so much more difficult than talking someone down off the ledge so to speak. It turns out the vast majority of callers to a suicide hotline are not suicidal. I can’t speak for any other geographical area than the one I volunteered for but I’d guess it’s the same everywhere.
Most people who dial up a 24-hour suicide hotline aren’t suicidal. They’re calling because something’s not right in their life and they want to talk about it. And when they have no one they can confide in or it’s three in the morning and they can’t sleep because whatever’s bothering them is eating them alive, there aren’t many other options.
Often they’re embarrassed when asked the mandatory question every single caller must be asked at the beginning of every call: Are you thinking of hurting yourself or are you considering suicide. They say things like, “I’m sorry, I didn’t know who else to call, maybe I should call someplace else,” or they fall all over themselves insisting they’re not suicidal.
The problems they’re wrestling with are universal: Job loss. Loneliness. Relationship issues. Addiction. Lack of health insurance. Lack of money. Depression. Family conflicts. Mental illness.
There are no easy answers. Sometimes there are no answers at all. Sometimes despite all the resources at our fingertips, a caller lives in an area where no assistance, free or otherwise, is available. Or he doesn’t have a car, or access to a bus line. Or she’s unable to leave her home for various reasons. Sometimes despite every suggestion, despite every phone number offered, the caller doesn’t want help.
The reasons someone decides to take his or her life are as diverse as various individuals' personalities. One person’s breaking point may simply be another’s bump in the road. That’s why it’s critical to get it out of the way at the beginning of the phone call: Are you thinking of hurting yourself or are you considering suicide. It’s too easy for the volunteer to assume the situation isn’t as bad as it may be if the caller isn’t immediately up front; the volunteer must always assume the worst case scenario.
What surprised me is how many of my callers weren’t suicidal despite the huge, sometimes seemingly insurmountable problems in their lives. So many times they just wanted someone to hear them out. As sad and hopeless as some of the situations were, they also left me in awe of the human spirit and its desire to persevere.
Sometimes I still think about Sam.* He called one morning at about 5. He was adamant he wasn’t suicidal, he just wanted to talk. He'd made a mess of his life due to drinking. He hated what he did for a living, working a dead end minimum wage job at one of those discount dollar stores. Almost all his money was going to child support yet he couldn’t see his three kids because he didn’t live close enough to his ex-wife and had no transportation. He had no car and couldn't drive anyway since he'd lost his license.
Sam missed his kids but he was afraid their mother was turning them against him. He said he sent them letters and birthday and Christmas presents but she’d send them back to him, unopened. His work was three miles away. Since he had no car and didn't live near a bus line there was only one way for him to get there - by walking.
I didn’t make any suggestions and he didn’t ask for any. I just listened while he matter-of-factly told me about himself and his life and how things had gotten to where they presently were. Two hours later Sam said he had to go; he had to be out the door if he was going to be at work at 8.
Even though he’d done most of the talking, I felt drained. I wasn’t sure how to end the call but I also didn’t want to let him go. I wanted to say something to him that would make him feel hopeful. While I was frantically trying to think of the right words that might send him on his way with a lighter heart, he saved me the trouble. He began making a strange high-pitched noise that at first I took to be a laugh, then realized was a wail as it went on and on. It ended with a strangled cry as he gasped, I don’t want this life! I don’t want this life! I don’t want this life!
Then Sam quickly pulled himself together, thanked me for listening and hung up.
*Name and details have been changed to protect the subject's privacy.