This is a story about suicide. If only it was about something more lighthearted and fun, like puppies, then probably more people would read it. Or at least enjoy reading it. But it's not about puppies. Sorry to disappoint you.
There are few things more uncomfortable to talk about, or even think about, than suicide. You might know this through firsthand experience. Maybe you know someone who is suicidal, and have squirmed through the uneasiness of disconsolate conversations. Maybe you yourself feel trapped by a pain that seems to have no beginning and no end. Or maybe suicide is a distant, foreign concept to you.
For me, it’s a personal thing. About two years ago, my wife was acutely suicidal for eight months, and we lived with suicide’s stubborn presence as a part of our daily lives. It sucked, badly – but she got through it. During that time, she sought professional help, and I quit my job to stay at home with her, so she had lots of support.
But there are many people in the city who deal with suicidal impulses alone. They can’t afford a psychiatrist, are ashamed to share their feelings, or have worn out the patience of their friends and family. Luckily, for the last 50 years, there have been listeners who always answer the phone and never hang up in frustration or fear. This is thanks to San Francisco Suicide Prevention, the oldest suicide hotline in the United States.
“When people call, we listen exquisitely,” says Eve Meyer, the executive director of San Francisco Suicide Prevention. “Most people are so uncomfortable with talking about pain. They want to back away, or try to fix it, or ask, ‘Have you tried this?’ What we do is listen, and through listening, we help callers discover their own survival skills.”
I visit Eve at SFSP’s office. For some reason, I am really nervous. I remember what I was like when my wife was suicidal: a tightly wound ball of anxiety and exhaustion. I guess I expect the people who work here to be the same way, and that it’s going be a heavy and somber visit.
Eve meets me at the front door with a bright smile. Within a few minutes of chatter, I feel at home. I slowly realize that they are my tribe – we are the people who talk about something that no one else wants to.
Eve is a short Jewish woman with vibrant red hair (I promised her that I would describe her hair) and a living example of the saying that “good things come in small packages.” She got involved in SFSP 22 years ago after taking a break from her career as a social worker, thinking she’d be there for a year or so. Instead, suicide prevention has become her life’s work, and she is now an internationally recognized expert on the subject. Best of all, she has an amazing sense of humor – not exactly something you might expect from a woman who talks about suicide all day.
“When I tell people that I work in suicide prevention, they usually smile at me, take two steps backwards, say something like, ‘What good work you do,’ and then turn around and are gone in a puff of smoke,” Eve tells me. “In my next life, I’ll come back and work for something like the Vaginitis Foundation, and people will be less freaked out.”
We both laugh because we know how true that is. Most people would rather talk about anything – politics, religion, or even colonoscopies – than suicide.
Ten staff and about 80 volunteers at SFSP rotate through the office in shifts to make sure there is always someone around to answer the phone 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. I meet the staff, but leave the volunteers alone to monitor the phones. I’ve sat through enough suicidal conversations – the long, uncomfortable silences, the unrestrained weeping, the anger, and above all else, the pain. I don’t need the exotic thrill of listening in on another one.
The training to become a hotline volunteer is rigorous, comprised of 10 three-hour sessions to learn how to listen. Each call starts with a direct question – “How suicidal are you feeling today?” – and progresses from there. Mental illness is one reason people are tempted to kill themselves, but economic hardship, sexual violence, shame, and delusions can all trigger someone to pick up the phone. Volunteers have to be prepared for any topic of conversation.
Part of the training at SFSP is developing empathy for just how painful it feels to be suicidal. And most of all, that the crisis a caller is experiencing is temporary and can be overcome. “We see suicidal feelings as a forest that you travel through,” Eve explains. “Most people don’t realize their feelings aren’t permanent while they’re experiencing them. There is too much pain. But they entered the forest somehow, and they can exit it, too.”
SFSP answers roughly 70,000 calls each year. Many are from repeat callers, desperate for someone who will listen without judgment, for free. The overwhelming majority of people who call are economically disadvantaged. Of the 70,000 calls, about 7,000 are serious threats of suicide, and about 700 result in the volunteer contacting 911 to send an ambulance to the person. In Eve’s 22 years, no one has ever committed suicide while on the phone with SFSP.
Hanging on the wall in Eve’s office is a huge picture of the Golden Gate Bridge. I keep glimpsing at it as we talk. You can’t talk about suicide in San Francisco without bringing up the bridge, where there are roughly 40 suicides each year. With its low railings and easy access for pedestrians, more suicides occur at the bridge than any other spot in the world.
“If 40 people a year died of food poisoning at a restaurant, the place would be shut down,” Eve says with frustration. She cites the studies that suggest that if you remove a popular method of suicide, it has a huge impact in reducing the overall rate. “For all the good work we try to do here, the most effective thing you can do to prevent suicide is to reduce people’s access to lethal means – things like bridge barriers, guns, and prescription drugs.”
Eve keeps the picture of the bridge up in her office as a confrontation. There is an approved plan for a metal mesh net under the bridge, but the hunt for funding means that the installation of a safety net is years away, if not decades. Whatever safety modifications are ultimately added to the bridge, Eve plans to hand draw them onto her poster, triumphantly.
SFSP primarily revolves around the hotline, but the organization also does outreach to schools, the police, and others who ask for help in addressing the delicate subject matter. In recent years, they’ve introduced online chats as part of their services, and are even experimenting with SMS-based counseling via cell phones.
“It’s a miracle every day that we do what we do,”
Eve concludes with pride. “What we’re really doing here is creating a movement of people who understand pain, and can treat those who are suicidal differently. To witness that miracle – to wake up and know that I’ll see it happen again – that’s why I’ve been doing this for 22 years.”
If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the San Francisco Suicide Prevention hotline at 415-781-0500 or chat with volunteers online at sfsuicide.org . You can learn about becoming a volunteer on its website.