Tory and I were 16 when we started at the suicide hotline. We’d met in training: the only teenage volunteers among a motley assortment of grown-ups (or so they seemed to us). That first night, they sat us around a putty-colored folding table with mismatched chairs. The whole place smelled like cheap coffee gone stale in a Styrofoam cup.
The line was run by a group called the Samaritans. The adult phones were — and still are — open 24 hours a day. Today, teenagers still work in three-hour shifts. Back then, in 1990, it was still a small outfit focused on the suicide intervention Helpline. Now it offers help through texts, calls and chats — 2.6 million of them, in fact, since the group first opened its doors.
It has been nearly 30 years since Tory and I sat in that tiny conference room. But the staff members there tell me the curriculum remains the same: Our job was to listen, and not in a way most of us had ever done before. We weren’t there to talk anyone out of depression or remind them of everything they had to live for. Instead, we had to do something most people cringe at in everyday life.
We needed to ask if they were considering suicide. Just like that. Straight up, without judgment. We needed to be prepared for them to say yes. If they did, we were to ask if they had a plan; and if they had a plan, whether they had the means to carry it out.
“You don’t have to fix problems,” Ron White, Samaritans’ chief program officer, told me recently. “You don’t have to change circumstances. What you can do is to be genuine and present with another person struggling with despair.”
So that’s what we did, every Thursday from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. Steven Schlozman, co-director of the Clay Center for Young Healthy Minds at Massachusetts General Hospital, tells me that this is what those considering self-harm need most. “People who feel like taking their own lives are often filled with a sense of shame or hopelessness, so they tend to keep it to themselves unless they’re directly asked,” he says.
But most of us don’t ask. We’re afraid we won’t know what to do with the answer, not realizing that asking can break through the isolation that puts our loved ones most at risk. Some still wrongly think raising the issue will give people the idea of hurting themselves.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the suicide rate for males ages 15 to 19 increased 31 percent from 2007 to 2015, to 14.2 per 100,000. For females, that rate doubled from 2007 to 2015 (from 2.4 to 5.1), and today, suicide is the second leading cause of death among teenagers. Importantly, nearly two in three of these deaths involve firearms. As Schlozman points out, “If you’re really worried about a loved one, ask about their access to firearms. This isn’t a political statement — it’s about the evidence. Not having a firearm around decreases the risk, no matter what you think about gun rights.”
In our year and a half at the Samaritans, Tory and I asked questions like these over and over. Most often callers would be surprised, then gratified, to finally talk about a sadness so deep that it left them feeling monstrous and terribly alone.
We were still teenagers, though, so in between the heavy moments we’d spin in our office chairs until we got too dizzy to walk. We’d take turns doing dramatic readings from the personals on the Boston Phoenix back page. When the inevitable sex calls came in — knowing they’d get a sympathetic teenage girl on the line — we’d vent to each other afterward. We could tell callers that we needed to end the conversation but not that they couldn’t call again. The fact is that anyone can be in crisis, anytime, and everyone deserves to get the help they need.
Then one night I showed up for my shift to find the head of the program waiting for me. She told me Tory had died by suicide the day before. I left without working my three hours, just walked through the rush of people outside and down into the subway, alone.
To this day, it haunts me. In all those nights, I never asked my friend the questions I posed to countless strangers on the phone.
Tory died before social media or the Internet, so there’s no Googling for photos or words she left behind. Still, on one of our last shifts she gave me a self-portrait she’d taken in photography class that I’ve kept all these years. It’s black and white, so you can’t tell the exact color of her hair or freckles. She’s turned in partial profile, eyes fixed in a thousand-yard stare. I know now that giving away belongings is a warning sign; maybe I knew it even then and did not see it for what it was.
But in the end what my friend really left me was something far more powerful, even if it came at a terrible price.
Tory, you taught me that we cannot rely on people who are feeling suicidal or in despair to ask for help. Too often if they’ve reached that point, they don’t have the wherewithal to reach out. We cannot expect we’ll recognize someone we love is hurting that badly, or that they would tell us if they were.
What we can do is ask them — the strong ones who seem like they have everything to live for and those we know are struggling. We can steel ourselves to reserve judgment, to hold the advice and skip the arguments for looking on the bright side.
Today I’m a mother aware that studies show teachers and parents overestimate our ability to recognize young people in crisis. But I know we can tell them that we’re worried; that we don’t know exactly what to say but we’re listening. We can remind them we will drop anything to get them or their friends help, no matter what.
Tory, I like to think you and I did this for some of those kids who called us. I’m sorry I didn’t think to do it for you. What I can do now is tell people not to make the same mistake, and make sure I never do again. I think you’d be glad to know you might still be helping save someone’s life somewhere, even if we couldn’t help you save your own.
Beth Jacob is a freelance writer, policy wonk and mom, although not necessarily in that order. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her family.
Resources: If you think a loved one might be considering suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for free, confidential advice 24 hours a day, at 1-800-273-8255. You can also call or text the Samaritans at (877) 870-HOPE (4673); in addition to prevention, the group’s volunteers offer counseling to those who have lost a loved one to suicide.
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