Twice each year, I am invited to speak to the sophomore health classes at Neuqua Valley High School. Recently, the students asked some wonderful questions about working on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800-273-TALK). Here are my reflections.
What do you tell someone who wants to commit suicide?
“Telling” callers anything can often be hurtful. Sentences that end in periods indicate we are not listening. The only thing that helps are sincere questions and deep listening. The only valuable path forward is the one the caller discovers during our conversation. In the end, it is what they tell me that matters.
How many lives do you think you have saved after 15 years?
We never save lives; we share sacred moments when callers choose to save their own. There have been thousands of those moments.
Does the job affect you emotionally?
The work is often emotional. When it is, I try to remain in touch with my emotions and honest with the callers. When I am sad or heartbroken, the caller usually knows, and that helps them know I understand. Most of the stories stay with me, especially those that are heartbreaking, but I am usually successful in not allowing the emotions to follow me home.
Do you ever fail to help callers?
There have been many times when I simply could not find the right words or question to help a caller see their life in a new way. Those calls are some of the most difficult. It makes me sad, but I forgive myself when I am imperfect. I am a volunteer who tries very hard to help every caller. Should a caller choose to end their life after we have talked, I refuse to take responsibility for what was, in the end, their unfortunate decision.
Have you had personal experience with suicide among friends and family?
16 years ago, before I began this work, I did not. In the last 15 years, because of my work in suicide prevention, I have been touched by the tragedy of suicide. I have had to live through the grief and pain with several families. Anyone who thinks no one will miss them when they are gone, has no idea of the devastation left in the wake of their decision to end their life.
How do you know the right thing to say?
We seldom do when the call begins. We begin by listening to the caller’s pain and validating their feelings. During the dialogue, we try to discern what is happening in their lives. Usually, after enough time together, we find questions that cause them to rethink how they see themselves; to reframe their pain and sorrow.
Do you have emergency procedures for someone who is about to end their life?
If a call ends unsuccessfully, meaning the caller is in danger of suicide and hangs up without a resolution, we call 911 and help the emergency responders find the caller and get them to an emergency room.
Is there something you have said in the past that has actually changed someone’s mind?
Everything we do on the line is aimed at inviting callers to see their world in new ways. We don’t change their minds but invite callers to change their own. There have been hundreds of times in which just the right question will help a person see things from a different perspective.
How and why did you get started in this work?
How and why I began is less important than why I am still there 15 years later. Several years ago, a young woman called with a bottle of pills she intended to swallow. After a long and heartfelt conversation, she chose to put the pills away. One of the last things she said to me was “I am thankful you answered my call. If you hadn’t, I’d probably be dead now.” Even many years later those words are etched on my heart, and their memory brings tears to my eyes.
Every human being hopes that, in the end, their lives will have mattered. If I can help another person choose life, I can go to sleep each night feeling immense gratitude.
Suicide Prevention Services of America, where I volunteer, is always in need of volunteers to help with their life-affirming work. To find out more, visit SPSAmerica.org or call 630-482-9699