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VOL. 129 | NO. 162 | Wednesday, August 20, 2014

‘Two Ears, One Heart’

Crisis Center fields more calls in wake of Robin Williams’ death

By Don Wade

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The phone rings and rings at the Memphis Crisis Center – 19,000 times in 2013, or 2.2 times every hour, 52 times a day, 365 days a year.

University of Memphis graduate student and hotline volunteer Allison Hotz takes a call at the Memphis Crisis Center, which experienced a spike in calls immediately after the death of Robin Williams. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

Of the 19,000 calls logged last year, 1,301 – or 3.6 per day – were from people talking about killing themselves.

“We are engaged in a first-aid process,” said Mike LaBonte, executive director for the Crisis Center. “That’s what intervention is – suicide first aid. We are not trying to miraculously fix all their problems in a one-hour phone call.

“Our goal,” he continued, “is to reach a position of safety. Most people don’t want to kill themselves. They just want the pain to end.”

The recent suicide of actor and comedian Robin Williams, who was 63, has put the topics of suicide and depression on the national agenda again. The National Prevention Suicide Lifeline reported their calls doubled from Aug. 10 to Aug. 12 – from the day before Williams’ suicide to the day after it.

LaBonte said their calls spiked in the days immediately after Williams’ death, and people – not just those who were considering suicide, but people who were in the midst of some emotional, mental or financial challenge – would bring Williams’ name up when they called the Crisis Center.

At one level, Williams’ suicide reflects a national trend. Suicide rates for adults ages 45 to 64 went up 40 percent from 1999 through 2011, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Baby boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 and of which Williams was one – generally have not taken to growing old gracefully.

“Men tend not to adjust as well,” said Dr. James Allen Greene, chair of psychiatry and the Harrison Distinguished Professor in Mental Health at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center, which partners with the Crisis Center and provides its call center and administrative offices.

Women, Greene said, attempt suicide at a rate four times that of men. However, men are twice as likely to be successful in a suicide attempt. No demographic has cornered the market on emotional distress or mental illness that can lead to thoughts of suicide. Warning signs that someone might be considering suicide include, but are not limited to, talking about killing themselves and making mention of a specific plan.

“If they have a plan,” Greene said, “they’ve been thinking about it for a while.”

Sammie Butts, 64, worked for decades as a project manager at FedEx and has spent the last two years of retirement as a volunteer at the Crisis Center, which relies on a trained volunteer staff to man the phones 24 hours a day.

She remembers taking a call from a woman that “just seemed to be having a bad week.” The woman spoke of problems on her job and said she was worried her husband might be having feelings for someone else.

Suicide Warning Signs

  • Talking about wanting to kill themselves, or saying they wish they were dead
  • Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as hoarding medicine or buying a gun
  • Talking about a specific suicide plan
  • Feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
  • Feeling trapped, desperate or needing to escape from an intolerable situation
  • Having the feeling of being a burden to others
  • Feeling humiliated
  • Having intense anxiety and/or panic attacks
  • Losing interest in things, or losing the ability to experience pleasure
  • Insomnia
  • Becoming socially isolated and withdrawn from friends, family and others
  • Acting irritable or agitated
  • Showing rage, or talking about seeking revenge for being victimized or rejected, whether or not the situations the person describes seem real

Individuals who show such behaviors should be evaluated for possible suicide risk by a medical doctor or mental health professional.

– American Foundation for Suicide Prevention

“Then she said she was on the Mississippi River bridge,” Butts said. “I could hear the wind. I thought she was just driving. She wouldn’t tell me which side of the bridge she was on. She had left her keys in the ignition; she didn’t plan to go back to the car.”

The woman received a call from her son, she told Butts, and ended the call. Butts tried her phone number over the next few days but never got an answer.

“I don’t know how that one ended,” she said, “but Michael teaches us to ‘leave it at the center.’ You can’t take the calls with you.”

That said, they do make follow-up calls in the days after a suicidal call whenever possible (sometimes people ask not to be contacted). Volunteers make referrals to mental health providers and other professionals. They don’t attempt to diagnose; they do listen.

“Two ears, one heart,” Butts said. “You listen, let them lead you.”

But sometimes that opportunity never presents itself. Butts had a friend of 38 years, a 63-year-old woman – the same age as Robin Williams – that had a good family and job and seemingly everything to live for.

“She was a strong person,” Butts said of the friend who took her own life last fall. “My other friend and I looked at each other and said, ‘Why didn’t we see this?’ Suicide has no boundaries.”

Butts says those follow-up calls that volunteers make to people who have called the Crisis Center often render good news; many times people are in a much better state of mind.

“They’ve had time to back away from that abyss,” she said.

Often with the help of those trained volunteers. LaBonte uses a self-effacing analogy to make the point that their job is to buy time.

“I’m a big guy,” he said. “I might have a heart attack and I might need open heart surgery. Right now, I’m hoping you know CPR. But I wouldn’t want you standing over me with scalpel.”

And so volunteers – and more are always needed – listen in the moment. Butts says she tries to establish rapport and, ideally, help the distressed person to feel as if this voice on the other end of the line that had been a stranger is now putting an arm around her.

“Sometimes you hear things involving children and abuse, things you don’t want to hear, things you’d like to unhear,” she said. “But this is the most rewarding thing, except for my husband and my children, I’ve ever done.”

For more information about the Memphis Crisis Center, including volunteer opportunities, go to MemphisCrisisCenter.org. For help, call the Crisis Center hotline at 274-7477.

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