By Jack Firneno
It looks like a regular office: pale blue walls, a note on the thermostat, a Keurig in the corner. There are a few cubicles with important information tacked to the fabric walls, and occasionally the sound of chattering coworkers seep around them.
But, those conversations aren’t the usual office banter.
“I’m still a little frazzled from that last call,” admitted Maria Picciotti. She was on the phone with a college student who was threatening to kill himself. “Usually, you can talk around it, but he was very determined about it. Just, ‘Nope, I’m gonna do it.’ ” She stayed on the phone with him as he walked to a health center for more help.
It’s unusual to get a call that intense, she said. But it’s all in a day’s work.
Picciotti is the call center coordinator for CONTACT, the phone line run by the Family Service Association of Bucks County. In spring 2013, Family Service completed a merger with CONTACT of Greater Philadelphia. As a result, they began operating the helpline out of offices in Bucks and Montgomery counties. And they’re currently looking for more volunteers.
CONTACT is available for people in danger of committing suicide, a rising trend both nationally and locally. But it’s also a “warm line” in addition to a hotline: a number for people to call who need immediate help coping with anxiety, depression or just need to talk but aren’t in a crisis situation.
Some are already seeking help, but need an extra boost to get them through the day. Others are distraught and just don’t know what to do. And, there are a handful of regular callers, people with literally no one in their lives, who need to speak with someone just to feel validated.
“Not everyone who calls is suicidal, and we’ve seen people improve with baby steps over years,” she said.
Picciotti and a group of volunteers talk to them all, in various shifts from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day. Some volunteers come in once or twice a week, others a few hours a month when they can. They listen, they sympathize. They suggest local health services and call back the next day to check up if the caller requests it.
“I had a person call once seven times in one day, because they were thinking obsessively about something and just had to make it to their therapy appointment later in the day,” she recalled. If the phones are busy, they’ll limit regular callers to about 10 minutes per conversation but always encourage them to call back.
“I treat every call like it’s a suicide call,” said Picciotti. “There’s really no other resource like this.”
Some, like the person Picciotti spoke with earlier, are on the verge of hurting themselves, but many just need to reach out to someone in that moment. Mostly, said Picciotti, “They want permission to be helped.”
Suicide is still taboo in America, something people don’t like to talk about. So, it helps to have someone validate what they’re feeling. Sometimes, volunteers get calls from concerned friends or family members who know they need to call 911 to help someone but are afraid to. In these situations, it often helps just to describe what the process will be like once they make that emergency call.
A key component to these calls is anonymity: callers can give their names and numbers if they want, but are not required to. And, the volunteers often use aliases since they live in the communities they serve.
“I think people like to be anonymous because it makes them feel safe. It allows them to speak freely about whatever is on their mind without a sense of accountability.”
No one knows why exactly, but suicides have been on the rise over the last few years on a national scale. It’s the second-leading cause of death among people ages 25 to 34 years old, and largely affects white males from 25 to 64.
In this state, the death rate for suicides has increased in four of the last five years, according the Pennsylvania Department of Health. Locally, CONTACT volunteers fielded 576 calls in September alone. They come mostly from Bucks, Montgomery, Delaware and Berks counties, but also include some coming in from a national suicide hotline. An additional 300 or so local calls rolled over to a call center for a similar group in Maryland.
In October, the group took more than 800 calls.
Picciotti said there’s no clear theory as to why instances like these are on the rise, but that Bucks County started tracking data this year to identify trends.
While that’s happening, she and her volunteers are on the front lines, taking those calls 12 hours a day. They’re available for the regular callers, people who, said Picciotti, “may live in some room they rent in the middle of nowhere, and just need to say to someone, ‘Hey, I woke up today.’”
Or, there’s a more imminent problem, like the teenager who called in for the first time that afternoon. Picciotti spoke with her for about 15 minutes, slowly getting details about her home life and immediate situation from her. By the end of the call, the teenager was calm and agreed to call a free mental health service near her. Picciotti would call the next day to see how it went.
“She had a lot of great things going on, but she couldn’t focus on those in that moment,” said Picciotti. Sometimes, the job requires just asking a lot of open-ended questions and just listening, letting the caller fill in the silence.
Ultimately it’s a person-to-person connection that can make all the difference.
“As soon as I asked her name, she stopped crying.”
CONTACT regularly holds training for new call center volunteers. For more information, visit http://www.fsabc.com or call (215) 757-6916 ext. 202.
Need help? Call the CONTACT Helpline at (215) 355-6000 or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1 (800) 273-TALK (8255).