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From Suicide to Service
Suicide Survivor Says Crisis Line Volunteer Work Helps Others & Himself

Article Tihanna McCleese, BHRS Communications
woman sitting at desk

Crisis center counselors are at the forefront of the work being done in San Mateo County to help reduce the risk of suicide and to promote mental wellness. Call center staff at San Mateo County’s only 24/7 crisis hotline, which is part of StarVista’s Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Center (Crisis Center), is available 24-hour-a-day, 365-days-a-year to field calls from people in emotional distress, dealing with  depression or feelings of being overwhelmed, anxiety, and those having thoughts of suicide. The Crisis Center’s staff members and the 30 volunteers are trained to offer immediate emergency telephone counseling, and provide a high level of confidential emotional support in addition to connecting callers to crisis intervention resources.  

More than 11,000 calls were answered last year alone, an amazing accomplishment considering that the call center is comprised of a single desk staffed by just one volunteer per shift juggling multiple calls at a time; including those routed from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.  

Program managers and counselors at the Crisis Center say their mission every day is to provide life changing support and services with passion, dedication, and a deep sense of caring and concern for the welfare of every person served, which usually amounts to over 20,000 people in a single year. 

Following is an interview with crisis center volunteer “William” (not pictured). William is a BHRS consumer who attempted to take his own life five years ago but is now thriving in full health and recovery. William says part of what has helped him most is finding a way to help others deal with their addiction and mental health issues while also helping to spread the word that suicide can be prevented.  

William’s Interview: 

Describe what a typical day is like working at the crisis center. 
I try to anticipate it but nothing goes as expected! A shift is four hours and usually, there will be between 5-20 calls. Some are ”familiar voices.” These are individuals for whom calling crisis lines is part of the way they manage their difficulties. Often, we get “third party calls.” These are people, possibly a group, looking for help with a situation involving a friend or family member. Just recently, I had a call from some teens worried about a friend, and rightfully so. I was proud of them for seeing there might be a problem, caring enough to take action, and having the courage to call the crisis hotline. Then, there are the distressed individuals. I’ve found they really have a need to be heard. As the Telephone Counselor, I calm them and help find short-term solutions and resources, either through their insurance or a community-based program. On occasion, I will escalate a call to the Crisis Center clinician. In a rare instance, there may be a “rescue,” which is when we feel someone has reached the point of being a threat to themselves or others and we ask the authorities to do a welfare check, which means a face-to-face assessment.  

Can you talk about how you specifically are able to successfully help calm callers and ease them into a better state of mind?  
People who call the crisis hotline are caught in a thought process that has somehow become stuck. Because they cannot see a way out, this becomes an endless loop. Success comes when I can get inside that loop with them, just long enough to find a way to help guide them out of it.  

What has been the most surprising thing you’ve learned from working in this role? 
Suicidal thoughts and actions are much more prevalent than I realized, even among children. ​The Crisis Center receives calls from school employees, parents, and young people with concerns about possible suicide related behavior. During the school year, I tend to get two or three of these a month. I have had calls regarding children as young as eight. It usually starts with an adult noticing they are isolating, and/or drawing or writing things that are alarming. Generally, the trigger is something occurring in the home. With middle and high schoolers, they call because they are feeling overwhelmed or friends call because of something said, texted, or posted online. The triggers here tend to be social situations, like break-ups, bullying and/or being shunned by peers. The other major trigger is parental pressure to succeed. On the crisis hotline, we talk about the circumstances that have caused the immediate situation and try to keep the person safe until they can get more help. There may be underlying causes, often undiagnosed and untreated depression, anxiety and such, but we have to leave it to the professionals to sort that out.   

What would you say is the most important thing you provide to callers as someone who has dealt personally with attempting suicide?  
There is a certain amount of credibility that comes with personal experience in any endeavor. And, it sometimes allows me to connect with what the caller is feeling very quickly, and even helps them verbalize it. When this happens, it doesn’t take the caller long to figure out why I know these things. And then to realize that somehow, I’m doing OK now. I think this creates hope.  Sometimes, I will let them know that I’m helping myself by helping them. This can be a very impactful experience for both of us. ​  

Approximately 70 percent of suicides are among the “sandwich generation,” working age adults, like William.  In San Mateo County, men between the ages of 51-60 represented the highest number of suicides in 2018. 

William, now 58, was juggling an ambitious career, the break-up of a relationship, an untreated mental health condition and was self-medicating when he attempted to end his life in 2014. “There were  many times I’d be riding high; seemingly cruising through life but then I’d come crashing down… To some, this made me “schizo” but I didn’t internalize that label and instead, I persevered. I never stopped believing in my ability to be “healed,” so I was always  looking for the next thing that might “fix” me…. the next job, the next promotion, getting married, having a child, and so on.  None of it “worked.” None of it changed the suffering I was experiencing…This life I built over the course of four decades collapsed all at once. Like one big tower, my life came crashing down.” Read Williams’ full personal account of his story,

You’ve been working with the crisis center for two years now. How  does your personal experience apply in your role as a crisis trainer and panelist?  
As a trainer, I always emphasize the importance of trying to understand what the caller is going through, but I advise never saying that you understand, unless you really do.  Callers can sense if you are being less than genuine right away. I can talk to a caller about feelings like hopelessness and despair;  these things are very real to me, and I can still go to that place. I think the caller often not only feels heard but understood.  

What has been the most rewarding part of working on the crisis hotline?  
Having the opportunity to just do my best in the moment to help someone in need, without having to be concerned about who they are, where they are from, whether they have insurance, and so forth. This gives me a feeling of satisfaction that comes from being useful. 

What is one thing you believe everyone should know about mental health disorders and suicide?  
Everyone should know and understand that mental health disorders and suicide risk exists, here and now, around all of us. And, it can impact, and even permanently change, the course of anyone’s life in an instant. So, ask about it, talk about it, and don’t hesitate to seek treatment for it. There are resources available. ​ 

If there were one thing you could tell yourself five years ago, what would it be? 
I’d tell myself that we are not meant to know the future. Life can be good in ways that are very different than what we might visualize at any given time. Things can work out fine, very unexpectedly. My life now would have been almost incomprehensible to me five years ago. But I have found a sense of peace and comfort I’d never known before by just trying to be useful, being of service to others suffering, and trying to do the next right thing. 

Please add anything else you feel is important.  
There are really a lot of resources available, especially here in San Mateo County, that even as a long-time county resident, I was never aware of. And, many of these are provided by StarVista, the organization that runs the Crisis Center. In the Crisis Center alone, there is the Crisis Line, the Teen Chat Line, and the School Intervention Program, which not only does training about suicide in schools, but has clinicians who will go out to schools and intervene directly in crises involving possible suicidal behaviors in school age children. The First Chance sobering station, Pride Center, sliding scale counseling services, school counselors, and Your House South – a safe house for teens, and much more, all come from StarVista. 

Thank you so much for your time and service to the community William. 
Thank you! 

**Read William’s full story of how he overcame his personal struggles with mental health and addiction in our latest Voices of Recovery article here.  

More About Star Vista Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Center: 

The Crisis Intervention & Suicide Prevention Center (Crisis Center), a program of StarVista, has been in operation for over 50 years. The Crisis Center offers free, easily accessible services that are available to all residents of San Mateo County. Crisis Center staff and volunteers have answered hundreds of thousands of calls (including calls from an Alcohol and Drug Helpline, and a Parent Support line) and made countless life-saving rescues through the Crisis Hotline and the other following components: 

  • Community education and awareness, including presentations to youth about healthy coping skills, student stress reduction, mental health, and suicide prevention. Presentations for adults, community members, and organizations around mental health and suicide prevention are also available. 
  • Clinical services, including a Youth Intervention  Team which conducts  on-site crisis interventions at schools throughout San Mateo County  assess suicide risk, works with school staff and families and provides short-term therapy. 
  • A teen website, www.onyourmind.net, that allows young people to anonymously log on and gain support from peer counselors and talk via private “live chat” sessions. 
  • Staff and volunteers at the crisis center all go through a rigorous 6-week volunteer training, which covers topics around active listening, suicide risk assessment, working with youth, cultural diversity, and more.  

If you or someone you know needs support by a trained volunteer, contact the Crisis Hotline at (650) 579-0350 or the Spanish Crisis Hotline at (800) 303-7432.  

For any other questions including volunteer opportunities, contact Islam Hassanein at islam.hassanein@star-vista.org, or (650) 579-0359, ext. 25.  

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