Go Inside The Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline

Sep 28, 2015

The call center at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline could be a room in any number of businesses. There are four desks, each with a computer and a phone. But the overhead fluorescents are off and the soft light from a few lamps makes it feel more like a therapist’s office. A woman is talking on the phone to someone who says a friend is posting suicidal thoughts on Facebook.

Idaho has a suicide rate nearly 50 percent higher than the national average. As September - which is National Suicide Prevention month - draws to a close, we wanted to meet some of the people trying to change Idaho’s sad numbers.

Mary Wurtz says the calls that stay with her when she goes home are people who aren't suicidal but going through a hard time and want someone to talk to. She says those calls can be enjoyable.

Mary Wurtz is giving feedback to a fellow volunteer who just ended a call. Wurtz praises her technique and says she did a good job diffusing a tense situation. Wurtz is one of the hotline’s most experienced volunteers. She’s been doing it almost a year and a half. She also has a job, is a full time student majoring in social work and has five kids.

She says she first heard about the hotline when one of her professors mentioned in class that it needed volunteers.

“I honestly thought that most people wouldn’t want to do that. That’s really where my mind went,” Wurtz says. “I think I’m drawn to things most people wouldn’t want to do because, I don’t know, I like the misfits and the people that have trouble.”

Before Wurtz could start at the hotline, she had to undergo about 50 hours of training and commit to working for a year. She says the training was intensive but she was still nervous for a long time while waiting for the phone to ring.

“For, I would say, the first several months of volunteering, as soon as the phone starts ringing you go into this panic mode,” Wurtz says. “Like ‘oh my gosh, what is this call going to be?’”

So far this year the hotline’s 65 volunteers have taken more than 3,500 calls. Some calls are people who are thinking about suicide or have a loved one they think might be considering it. Not all calls deal with suicide, a lot are people going through a difficult time and don’t have anyone to talk to. About two percent are classified as “rescue calls” when the caller is considered in imminent danger.

“Those are lives saved,” hotline director John Reusser says. “Those are people that, had they not reached out and had we not intervened, many of them wouldn’t be alive today.”

The hotline has been open for nearly three years but has only been staffed around the clock since last November. It takes calls from all over Idaho from this office in a Boise strip mall. Reusser says they don’t advertise the hotline’s location. The sign over the door is for the last business in the space. The hotline volunteers also don’t use their real names on the phone.  Reusser says they have to be conscious of safety.

“It’s rare, but sometimes [hotline] workers are threatened,” Reusser says.

Wurtz says she doesn’t worry about being safe at the hotline and she doesn’t get nervous waiting for the phone to ring anymore. But she admits she still gets anxious when a caller is in danger.

“It manifests in my stomach,” Wurtz says. “Your skin starts to crawl. Your hair stands up, because it’s almost like the fight or flight feeling. You know, your endorphins are going, your whole body’s starting to react.”

Just inside the hotline's front door, volunteers write things on the wall they are doing for their own mental health.

But Wurtz says those intense calls never bother her when she goes home.

“Some people might have trouble letting go,” she says. “But I am able to kind of roll them off and leave everything here at the hotline. I don’t know really how I’m good at it.”

Supervisor John Andersen used to work for Las Vegas' mobile crisis response team. He says it was a busy job.

She says after difficult calls, talking with a supervisor helps a lot. There is always a supervisor in the room listening to the calls. Supervisors are paid staff with master’s degrees in subjects like counseling. During the most intense calls, a supervisor coaches the volunteer through instant message. Reusser says after difficult calls the supervisor debriefs with the volunteer to help process the emotions.

“Our volunteers have to be emotionally ready to handle that heavy content,” Reusser says. “And they have to be able to allow themselves to be supported by their supervisor and their other phone workers.”

Reusser says the hotline needs about 30 more volunteers to be fully staffed. He wants each shift to have three volunteers but sometimes there’s just one volunteer and a supervisor on duty. When calls come too quickly, they are automatically rerouted to a hotline in another state. The caller will still get a trained volunteer to talk with but that volunteer may not know much about what resources are available in Idaho to help after the call ends.

There are no educational or experience prerequisites for volunteers. Many were impacted by a loved one’s suicide before joining the hotline. Others, like Mary Wurtz, had no previous experience at all.

John Reusser says they sometimes do have to screen out people who want to help but may not be ready. Besides emotional resilience, he says volunteers have to be able to think on their feet and take direction while under pressure. But he says the top qualification is good listening skills. He likes to say volunteers don’t talk people out of suicide, they listen them out of suicide.

And it’s not just volunteers Reusser is looking for. He’s also constantly searching for funding. The hotline gets its money from a bunch of places, including the state and charitable foundations. Reusser downplays the financial need. He says he likes that the hotline is a public-private partnership. He says he likes that so many different groups get to be part of its mission. And he says fundraising builds valuable relationships. But…

“We would like to get long term, sustainable funding locked in place," Reusser says. “It would take some of the insecurity out of it.”

Idaho had a suicide prevention hotline which closed in 2006 due, in large part, to lack of funding. For years prevention activists worked to establish a new one. In the meantime, Idaho crisis calls went to an out of state hotline. At the same time Idaho’s suicide rate climbed as high as fourth in the nation.

In 2012 Idaho lawmakers voted to contribute to a new hotline. Now support may be building at Idaho’s Capitol to increase that funding. Representative Christy Perry (R, Nampa) for example, says the legislature needs to work harder to create a better mental health system in Idaho.

“The suicide hotline tends to be a first step for some people into that mental health system,” Perry says.  “And so it becomes very, very vital. I think if those in charge of the suicide hotline approach legislators or the legislature as a group, I think that they’re going to be able to get some support.”  

Hotline director John Reusser says he can’t ask lawmakers for money directly, but at the beginning of the legislative session he reports to a group of them. Reusser will undoubtedly talk about the people the hotline has been able to help but he’ll point out that Idaho still has the 7th highest number of suicides per capita in the country according to the 2013 data, the most recent available. He says that report also mentions that the hotline does not have long-term funding.

Representative Maxine Bell, who co-chairs the legislature’s budget writing committee, says lawmakers are ready to spend more on mental health. Bell says that could include the hotline.

“It’s a small item in a big budget,” Bell says. “But in a year when it appears that we will have a little extra funding, I know that’s one of the places that people will be very careful to see if what is happening does need a little more funding.”

But Bell says there will be a line of mental health advocates needing more money, including other suicide prevention programs, and lawmakers will have to choose carefully.

It’s generally agreed that services like Idaho’s Suicide Prevention Hotline provide valuable help to the people who reach out to them. But some people who need help the most will never call. And some critics argue that more emphasis should be put on preventive measures, so fewer people will get to a point of crisis in the first place. Hotline director John Reusser doesn’t dispute that.

“We should be putting more resources into mental health and preventative things,” Reusser says. “Those things should be adequately funded in addition to crisis approaches like hotlines.”  

Reusser says it’s never just one thing that keeps people safe. He says there will always be some need for crisis interventions and right now in Idaho there’s a big need. 

Folks at the hotline are fond of a particular metaphor. They say the people who call them are at the bottom of a well. And the volunteers climb down into the well and sit with them until they’re ready to climb out.

‘We won’t try to fix you,” Reusser says. “We won’t change someone’s life radically in the course of a 15-minute or a one-hour phone call. We’re going to help them stay safe for now. And we’re going to help them feel a little better in the short term and come up with some next steps to help them continue feeling better.”

Find Adam Cotterell on Twitter @cotterelladam

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