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A Dial Tone ... Finally

The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline returns

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Sitting at a desk in a half-unpacked room of what is to become the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, Nina Leary jumped and laughed nervously when the phone rang. The hot line hasn't yet launched. Its rooms are still in disarray with boxes and furniture waiting to be arranged. But in the coming weeks, Leary will be behind one of the desks prepared to answer some of the most important calls of her--and undoubtedly someone else's--life.

"I used a hot line when I was younger," said Leary. "Ever since then, I've wanted to give back."

For six years, Idaho has been the only state in the nation without a certified suicide crisis hot line. Idahoans had the option of accessing a national hot line, but those calls were usually answered in Oregon or Nebraska, said Sydney Young, the Idaho hot line's volunteer coordinator.

"It's important to have someone on the line who's local," said Young. "Idaho has its own culture, I think, that a lot of people, especially in a place like Portland [Ore.], wouldn't understand."

Officials with the Idaho Suicide Prevention Action Network point to an Idaho attempted-suicide rate that has been consistently higher than the national average. When a lack of state funding resulted in a shutdown of the Idaho hot line in 2007, an already too-high attempted suicide rate began to climb. By 2009, the Idaho Council on Suicide Prevention said the Gem State's suicide rate was fourth highest in the nation, nearly twice the national average.

The rising number of Idaho suicides grabbed more attention from the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Idaho lawmakers who helped fund the launch of a new state hot line earlier this year. Coupled with donations from the United Way of Treasure Valley and the Speedy Peterson Foundation, the hot line secured enough funding to cover start-up costs and two years of operating expenses.

Young spent the better part of the year recruiting the Idaho voices who will soon answer the crisis calls. A group of 18 volunteers, including Leary, participated in the first available training sessions and are poised to take the first calls. Most volunteers responded to print and radio advertisements while others like Leary--the mother of a deployed soldier--heard about the hot line from those already involved with the effort.

"I mentioned [to a friend] that there was this suicide hot line, and he said, 'Oh my gosh, you have to do it; you'd be perfect for that,'" remembered Leary. "So I called and here I am."

Leary joined others in the inaugural four-day training session: two days of Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training--a nationally approved discipline--with a third day examining specific topics such as identification of common causes for suicidal thoughts and a fourth day when volunteers practiced their new skills through role-play.

"You know by the end of the first day whether you're cut out for this," said Leary, who added that while the training was exhausting, it was also "affirming."

"It's nerve-wracking," she said. "You don't know what to say sometimes, but the most important thing is to just let them know, 'I'm here. I'm listening.' When we were practicing, we [sometimes] felt like we didn't say the right thing, but the caller always said it was comforting just to know someone was there. Even when it was silent, it was good to know someone was listening."

John Reusser, director of the Idaho hot line, said that other states mix their hot line operators with paid workers and volunteers, while others, like Idaho, are purely volunteer-based.

"There's a lot of evidence that shows volunteers are more successful than professionals," said Reusser. "They're fresh when they get here [because] they don't do this 40 hours a week. We're going to make sure our volunteers are taken care of. They won't ever take a hard call home with them."

With 18 volunteers trained and ready to begin answering phones, the Idaho suicide prevention hot line will operate Monday through Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Reusser told BW that the hot line had initially targeted Nov. 12 as the "ideal" launch date, but the certification necessary to begin taking calls stalled because the office that accredits hot lines is based in New York City and was temporarily shuttered during and after superstorm Sandy. The launch is now tentatively scheduled for Monday, Nov. 26.

In addition to securing continued funding, Reusser and Young said they are searching for new volunteers. They hope to extend the hot line's hours and begin operating Monday through Friday in January 2013, but that will require approximately 30 volunteers, according to Young. And to meet a further goal of operating 24/7, up to 90 volunteers may be needed. Young said that may be a possibility during the hot line's second year of operation.

The first batch of 18 volunteers range in age from 21 to 80; some are students, some are retirees and others, like Leary, are young parents with some spare time and giving hearts.

"We're all caregivers," said Leary. "We come from all over but the word that describes all of us is 'caregiver.' In terms of a time commitment, it's not much. But mentally, it's huge. It's so rewarding, though, knowing that you're helping people. What more do you need?"

And to Young and Reusser, it's satisfying to work with volunteers that often isn't the same with paid workers. Reusser said the volunteers' passion stems from an intrinsic love for the work rather than the need for a paycheck.

"That's what really inspires me," he said. "They have a passion for crisis work and doing it paid, nine to five every day in professional settings, can be really trying. Here, in a volunteer setting, it's like they bring this light in every day."

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