Every time volunteers manning the area’s Concern Hotline answer the phone, they face walking a verbal tight rope of life and death.
There are 30 volunteers manning the hotline’s suicide prevention phones 24/7 and approximately 1 in 10 callers may be someone considering suicide and seeking help by talking to someone.
“When you are on the bubble, it makes your heart race,” said Charly Franks, 57, the hotline’s volunteer coordinator and a doctor of divinity. “You know it can go either way and you don’t always know if you were successful.”
Ever since the hotline was founded 50 years ago when Winchester’s suicide rate was double the national average, the hotline has handled an estimated 300,000 calls, according to Rusty Holland, 58, executive director since 2014.
All calls are anonymous and the six men and 24 women who are current hotline volunteers are on the front lines daily in a war against suicide that the nation – and Virginia – is losing.
Earlier this month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported suicide rates increased nationally 25 percent between 1999 and 2016, with Virginia’s growing 17.4 percent.
Three times more die from suicide than homicide in Virginia, with a suicide occurring every eight hours on average, and suicide is the state’s second leading cause of death for ages 15-34, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.
“I don’t know anyone anymore that hasn’t been touched by suicide,” said Holland. “We realize the problem is increasing because of the number of phone calls we receive.”
They handled 5,500 calls last year, Holland said. “Our job is not to measure how many suicides there are but to prevent them.”
Volunteers are armed with a newly compiled source book with 198 area agencies with specific help that includes basic needs, health, support/social, substance abuse, veterans and seniors.
“It’s probably the most important thing I am doing in my life right now,” said Linda McCarty, 77, of Winchester, who has been taking calls for 18 months. “We don’t judge. We just listen. I am just trying to help someone get a better life and I can’t get enough of it.”
Issues surrounding calls can include depression, under or not employed, eviction, divorce, death of a loved one, financial distress or homelessness.
“They may feel helpless, worthless,” said Holland. “We listen and let them know there is someone who cares about them. We want to change the face of the day from negative to positive. We empower them and encourage them to take charge.”
“The best experience is to make a connection with someone in a stressful crisis by using listening skills to develop a rapport,” said Franks. “Then be able to de-escalate the crisis and be able to point the caller to a place of assistance.”
“We need to listen, connect, understand and then help,” said Holland. “We refer. We don’t give advice.”
First, however, comes the need to connect with the caller and develop a bond of trust.
“Every call is within the spectrum of someone considering suicide,” said Franks. “They know who we are.”
“You need to be in a passive mode as a listener,” said Holland. “It’s a dance. We follow along to see if they can trust us. You need active listening skills but we’re volunteers, not therapists. We need to understand (their issues) and only then can we assist them.”
And sometimes it doesn’t work, with one caller in the last three years committing suicide while on the Concern Hotline.
Holland was the call taker.
Today he doesn’t feel guilty or have regrets.
“No, because I know I did everything I could do,” he said.
He said there are three stages of suicide, beginning with ideation (the idea of suicide as a solution), then compulsion by thinking about how they would do it, and the third stage is action.
“Ambivalence is what we pray for when someone calls us and that is what we get 99 percent of the time,” Holland said, who was an addiction counselor and therapist in the past.
Calls come from all over the world.
They helped a man from Belgium just diagnosed as HIV positive who looked up the phone number on the internet.
“We were Googling while talking to him and found a support group nearby and gave him the phone number,” said Holland. “Two weeks later, he called back and thanked us.”
“You don’t always know if you are successful,” said Franks. “We don’t often get that resolution.”
Everyone who deals with suicide as it slowly emerges from the shadows with the recent deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain agrees suicide deaths are a growing societal problem.
“The pain gets diluted with statistics,” Holland said. “We need to know why (suicide occurs) and get more accurate reporting.”
Because some people never ask for help, Del. Wendy Gooditis, D-Clarke County, fought successfully to get the Virginia legislature to pass a bill earlier this year requiring the Department of Behavioral Health and Development Services to annually report its anti-suicide actions on Dec. 1.
“One of the only weapons we have is to raise awareness and get society to understand that it is a problem,” Gooditis said.
“When my brother was hospitalized and took a whole bunch of his medications all at once, it looked like a suicide attempt but when they asked him, he said it wasn’t,” she said.
“We took him up back from the brink two or threes times but ultimately he died. It was what I call a suicide but it was ‘death by despair.’ He stopped eating. ”
“The autopsy showed his heart failed,” she said.
It was not ruled a suicide in state statistics.
“People think they have no recourse,” Gooditis said. “We have to do better in this society, let them know they have recourse and give them support.”