Inside NYC's Busiest Suicide Call Center
by Alison Bowen Metro September 23, 2012
Crisis counselors are trained to the unusual task of working with people over the phone and not face-to-face.
They can't see them, and they don't know where they are.
But they save lives, using only their voices and a few taps on a keyboard.
LifeNet, a free and confidential hotline for people battling struggles from substance abuse to suicide, operates its largest call in New York City, at the Mental Health Association of New York City's Crisis Contact Center. The office fields calls from all five boroughs, from those who are feeling desperate, or suicidal, or perhaps just need someone to listen.
And LifeNet gets hundreds of calls a day. Every year, 100,000 calls come into the center. The call center answers more calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline than any other center nationwide, fielding the majority out of the estimated 800,000 calls the NSPL will receive this year.
Many are people broken by dark thoughts. Some want a referral for a relative. Others, a few a month, require calls to 911 to dispatch an ambulance or rescue team. None in memory have committed suicide while on the line.
Metro spent an afternoon at the Mental Health Association's Broadway office and 56 calls came in one two-hour period alone. One caller was depressed, he said, because his illness caused him a great deal of pain and he was thinking of ending his life. A counselor directed him to a nearby hospital, which he promised to walk to.
Others helped by the hotline have donated to the program - one teenager, after calling in suicidal, sent a $10 donation later that night with a note explaining how close to death he had felt before calling. The calls are answered by about 40 staffers who are mental health professionals.
Dely Santiago, 28, a Williamsburg psychotherapist, asks callers things like where they are, what they're thinking and what led to those thoughts. She then tries to steer them toward help, asking if they would be willing to go to a nearby hospital or have an ambulance escort them.
"Some people call and they know that's a possibility, but it's not what they want," she said. She determines if the person is an immediate danger to themselves or others - if they report feeling sad, for example, or say they are ready to swallow a bottle of nearby pills - and whether the best help might be an appointment or an ambulance. A serious call might require 20 to 30 minutes, and a shorter referral call could be two minutes or seven, she said.
Because she almost always refers callers to a hospital or elsewhere for help, Santiago never really knows the end result.
"I know I can't save everyone in the world, but I'd like to try," she said.
When do they get the most calls?
Santiago said more calls arrive when a person is out of their usual routine: at night, on holidays or sitting by themselves with too much to think about on a weekend.
“This phone is nonstop on Saturday mornings,” Santiago said. “When you’re busy, you don’t have time to wallow. It’s hard to manage when you’re home sitting alone with your thoughts.”
Director Marshall Ellis adds that the staffers receive weeks of training that includes taking care of their own mental health.
Signs posted in high-risk areas
Life Net has signs, as well as phones, posted on bridges throughout the city, including the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee.
Fields calls from 12 different numbers
1-800-LifeNet is the main crisis intervention number for the Department of Health and is advertised on city subway posters and on television. The center is the hub of all inbound calls for a dozen crisis hotlines and different numbers, including a Spanish suicide hotline and an anti-bullying hotline. The downtown office also receives calls from an NFL life line, a crisis hotline for current and former NFL players. New Yorkers calling 311 who ask to talk to a suicide or mental health professional are also be forwarded to the crisis center.
Volunteers also help
Elsewhere in the city, others answer similar calls. The Samaritans of New York’s suicide prevention hotline answers about 60,000 calls a year, director Alan Ross estimated.
Different on phone
Many mental health programs train to provide one-on-one care in an office where counselors face the client, Ellis said. But over a phone, it can be different. Staffers don’t know where the callers are or even if they are being completely truthful with their answers, so it is a different type of reading tones or answers. “You have a different dynamic not being able to see them,” he said.
National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week is in early September. For help or to report a suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Center Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Signs that someone might be thinking about suicide:
Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
Talking about being a burden to others
Increasing their use of alcohol or drugs
Acting anxious or agitated or behaving recklessly
Sleeping too little or too much
Withdrawing or isolating themselves
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
Displaying extreme mood swings
New Yorkers can also call LifeNet at 1-800-LIFENET to get referrals to mental health programs and resources. Online, 800LifeNet.org offers info about common mental health issues along with program and medication listings.