Hope is on the line: When all seems lost, CONTACT's suicide prevention training can save lives

March 30, 2013 4:23:12 PM

Jan Swoope - [email protected]


Amy remembers the day she picked up a razor to attack the seething anger she had bottled inside. At that drastic moment, life simply seemed too heavy to bear. The abrupt loss of her longtime job and the deaths of her father, mother and grandmother had propelled her toward crises. 


"I was going through a rough time, and then bang, bang, bang, bang, things kept happening and piling up," the Columbus woman revealed, her voice low and halting. "I was exhausted, worn out -- physically, mentally, every way ... and I said 'just forget it.'" Amy cut herself severely, but fortunately survived. 


It was by chance that she soon after saw CONTACT Helpline Executive Director Lindy Thomason on television, talking about the confidential telephone crisis line manned by trained, caring volunteers. 


"I'd never heard of them before, didn't know what CONTACT did, but they showed the number on the screen, and I wrote it down," Amy recalled. "I held on to it for a few weeks." 


Inevitably, her demons resurfaced in a night of anger that threatened to swamp her -- until she remembered CONTACT and picked up the phone to make a call that would, she said, save her life.  


"There were ladies there that could really be tender and got close to me enough to pull me through," she shared. 


Today Amy is working, on correct medication, and better able to deal with whatever life delivers. Hers is just one of the stories of CONTACT Helpline. The Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) course the volunteers had taken made a life-altering difference for her, as it has for many others. 


That two-day workshop will be offered again April 15-16 at CONTACT's Columbus location, from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. each day. The registration fee is $100. Reservations are requested by April 8 by calling 662-327-2968. Continuing education hours, if needed, are $20. Participants must be at least 16 years of age. 




A safer community 


The training isn't just for those who want to volunteer on the helpline. 


"It's for community caregivers -- it's good for teachers, ministers, counselors, physicians, nurses, police, people that work in agencies, family members, anyone who wants to be better equipped to know how to deal with anyone thinking about suicide," said Thomason, who will teach the class, along with CONTACT Board President Nettie Mae Long. Both women attended ASIST training in New York. 


The workshop has five focus areas: Preparing; connecting, understanding, assisting and networking. Role-playing is part of the training. It can be intense but is worthwhile.  


"The goal is a suicide-safer community, an increase in awareness and knowledge of how to recognize the signs and be brave enough to ask and know what to do. If more people will get involved, we can help make this a safer place," Thomason said. 




Sobering numbers 


The American Association of Suicidology statistics show that in 2010, the latest year statistics are posted for, 38,364 reported suicides were completed in the United States, averaging more than 105 fatalities each day. There were 959,100 attempts recorded. With 388 deaths, Mississippi ranked 30th in the percentage of suicides per population. In the first three months of 2013, there have been four suicides in Lowndes County. Coroner Greg Merchant has the sad task of responding to those calls.  


"You just don't understand the importance of somebody having an outreach program such as CONTACT, to have somebody properly trained who can talk to people who are really struggling with life decisions," said Merchant, who serves on the nonprofit agency's board. "If you can just get them on the phone and talk, it might buy an hour, and then it might buy another hour. If it's a spur-of-the-moment decision (to consider suicide) and you can get them over that flash moment, we can hopefully get them to somewhere for in-depth care." 


On the line 


Helpline volunteer Joan Ketten has gotten numerous calls from people who feel desperate. Some are frightened, as though they're "about to go over a cliff." Some feel as though they've lost everyone important to them. Some simply need to vent and seek a non-judgmental ear to listen. 


She vividly recalled a call from a young man who felt he had nothing to live for. 


"I said, 'Maybe we can talk and work this out,'" Ketten relayed in empathetic tones. As the caller revealed more about himself, he eventually mentioned a pet hamster. "In our talk, I asked him who would take care of his hamster if he went through with it," the retired nurse and evangelist continued. And sometimes that's all it takes. 


"If you can find one life thing that person cares about and build on it, you have an opening to help them," said workshop instructor Nettie Mae Long.  


The ASIST course gives Ketten and volunteers like her the skills to do as much as they can for callers in distress.  


"I know I can't fix it for them, but I know I can be kind and listen and try to give them the resources they need, and I enjoy doing that. I wake up every morning and ask the Lord to bless me so I can be a blessing to someone else." 


Suicide is a community health problem that affects people of all walks of life, ages and economic levels. Training like that found in the upcoming ASIST workshop and open, direct, honest talk about it can translate to better understanding and successful intervention. No one should hesitate to seek help when depression, anxiety or isolation begin to seem overpowering. 


As Amy discovered, there is hope on the other end of the line, and life gets better. 


"Those ladies saved my life, they really did," she said, in gratitude.

Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.