What's it like?
I pick up the phone, and answer: “suicide and crisis service."
There’s a voice on the other end. He sounds lonely, scared and a tiny bit relieved that someone answered the phone. The other time it’s a “she,” angry, belligerent and loud.
Callers can be crying, screaming and panicking, or so quiet, I’m not sure if they’re really alive. I never know until I answer the phone.
I don't have a set formula for answering the calls. There is no one "right way" to respond to the huge variety of callers. I do my best to listen, assess, connect, and help the caller use resources available. The "resource" can be a friend, pet, or the priest at the church.
Sometimes I refer them to other resources. If needed, I ask for help from other volunteers, or outside organizations. I cannot "fix" what's broken. I am just a human being.
Why am I volunteering to work at the Suicide and Crisis Services of Santa Clara County?
Like most SACS volunteers I’ve met, I want to give something back to my community. Just as teachers, neighbors, friends and strangers at the grocery store have been kind to me when I needed it, I want to offer myself to a perfect stranger who’s reaching out.
In February, SACS responded to 2,035 calls. More than half, 1,342 calls, were categorized as “crisis only, non suicidal.” These are callers who need to connect to a caring human being, and say they don’t want to kill themselves. Often, once they feel heard, they think more reasonably, and go about their lives with a purpose and a direction.
SACS operates 24-7. Volunteers must ask the question, “Do you want to kill yourself?” on every call. Frequent callers know the drill, and tell us upfront, “... and, no, I don’t want to kill myself.”
I was really curious about these “regular” callers who call several times a day, week, or month. This is a smart group of people.
They know that hearing a compassionate voice, or just knowing that someone is listening, helps them get through their day. Thank goodness SACS operates 24 hours a day, seven days a week!
For the chronically mentally ill group, every day presents challenges—medications, their side-effects, interaction with alcohol and drugs, the insults, confusion, and voices in their heads, to name a few.
In this group of “regulars,” I've come across several sub-groups.
One group seems to call, just to “check in” whether in a crisis or not. Perhaps their every day existence is one crisis after another, and they either manage them well or not so well.
There are even a few callers who speak in chatty, easy-going friendly manner, and end the call with a cheery, “Now, you have a good day!”
Another set seems to continually be thinking about killing themselves, or dying. Mental illness is really unfair.
There are others in constant and high-intensity emotional and situational distress, but not thinking about death. I hope we find cures or something that can significantly help this population in my lifetime ... .
Fortunately, I’m extremely interested in learning to respond to these people without freaking out myself. I happen to come from a family where there was and still is a bit of high-intensity emotional distress. Learning to take care of myself amid mental illness is paramount to me.
I’ve found that being highly respectful of folks in distress helps me to be compassionate. After all, whatever troubles they have, they’ve managed to gather their courage to call the 855-278-4204 number, and have someone acknowledge them. "Good for you!" I think, and I openly tell them so. With my own family, I'm creating a variation on the theme (smiley face).
The 80-hour intensive volunteer training I received included a lot of personal work as well as didactic material about risk assessment, types of callers, and how to engage a distressed caller. Learning all that is really great, but training with others who have the heart to do this work magnified the experience.
The trainers continually stressed that volunteers are forever learning. Not only do we learn from each caller, but from the other volunteers with whom we share the shift. Knowing that Eddie Subega, a licensed marriage and family therapist and the clinical coordinator, is sitting just on the other side of the cubical divider, available for consultation helps too, obviously.
I had hoped that volunteering at SACS would help me “pay back to my community” as a crisis responder. I also hoped it would be a gift to me, so I can face my own crises better. I feel SACS is helping me do both.
I’m looking forward to my year at SACS.
*Of the 2,035 calls, 145 were categorized as suicide in progress, suicide lethality high, medium, or low. 548 were categorized as informational, triage, and miscellaneous.
Santa Clara County Coroner's report for February of 2013:
- Gender: male: 8, females: 1
- Age: 22, 28, 29, 29, 29, 41, 45, 48, 56
- Ethnicity: Caucasian, 6; Asian, 2; East Indian, 1
- Method: Firearm, 3; hanging, 3; train, 2; nitrogen, 1
- Location of suicide: Own residence, 6; rail road tracks, 2; business park, 1
About this column: Each week in Moms Talk, our Moms Council of experts, headed by moms Dyan Chan, Maaliea Wilbur, Jennifer Croll, Tamara Archer, and Grace "Megumi" Fleming take your questions, give advice and share solutions.