When in crisis, call

Workers at the Crisis Call Center in Reno say that, at the center, every week is Suicide Prevention Week

A volunteer at the Crisis Call Center in Reno talks with a person in need of a listening ear.

A volunteer at the Crisis Call Center in Reno talks with a person in need of a listening ear.

Photo By David Robert

Community members can attend the Hike for Hope at 9:30 a.m. May 11 at Hidden Valley Regional Park. Pre-registration is $10; event-day registration is $15. Participants are encouraged but not required to recruit pledge sponsors. Volunteers are also needed at Crisis Call Center; next training begins July 10. Those interested in volunteering or participating in Hike for Hope can call 784-8085. Those who wish to talk to someone on the crisis line can call 784-8090.

Kate Murtha says that just one year ago she didn’t know the number to the Crisis Call Center. She didn’t know what the center was, or that a conversation with one of its volunteers could have made her feel less alone.

At the time, Murtha was recovering from a stroke that left her not only physically weakened, but also filled with feelings of uselessness and frustration.

“Having been through a traumatic illness, I wonder why no one referred me [to Crisis Call Center],” she says. “Nobody gave me [its] number, and I think that’s really bad.”

It’s a number Murtha knows well today. A year ago she might have been a caller; now, as a Crisis Call volunteer, Murtha is on the other side of the line.

“When you’re down and out, you can’t take a deep breath and think,” she says.

Murtha, 51, says that many callers are afraid or embarrassed to call family if they’re depressed. She remembers one caller, a woman who had come to Reno to start a small business. The business failed, and she was embarrassed to call her family back home.

“Reno is a city that’s very fluid, so you have new people coming in, and they’ve left that support system behind. We help [callers] put that nickel in the phone and take that deep breath and get over being embarrassed.”

And volunteers help callers take small steps back to a better life. Murtha says that callers often expect too much from themselves and just need to set more manageable, short-term goals.

“It comes down to what you’re going to do tomorrow.”

Suicide Prevention Week, May 5-11, falls—perhaps not so coincidentally—during the time of year when suicide rates are highest. While conventional wisdom might suggest that more people turn to desperate measures during the dark and dreary winter months, and particularly during the holidays, studies have shown that more suicides occur in spring than any other time of year. Summer suicide rates follow close behind.

Susan Trentham, community services coordinator for Crisis Call Center, says that the center saw a 12-percent increase in calls from the second quarter, October to December, to their third quarter, January through March. She says that during the fourth quarter, the center usually sees an even steeper increase in calls.

“If you’re down around the holidays—it’s winter. Around spring, the weather is starting to change. If things are warmer and friendlier and you’re still down, you can’t really attribute it to the weather.”

According to a study published by the American Association of Suicidology, suicide is the 11th-leading cause of death in the United States, with one suicide occurring on average every 18 minutes. Studies show that, in Washoe County, someone dies by suicide every five days. The Crisis Call Center gets about 17,000 calls a year.

To boost awareness about suicide prevention and to raise funds for programming, the center is hosting its first annual Hike for Hope May 11. Community members are invited to walk or hike a one- or three-mile trail at Hidden Valley Regional Park. Funds are worrisome as the number of calls increase, and grants can’t always cover the costs of extra staffing and volunteer training.

But educating the public about suicide, Trentham says, won’t end with the hike.

“Here, it’s pretty much Suicide Prevention Week all year ’round.”

Crisis Call Center, a non-profit organization founded in 1966, isn’t simply a suicide prevention hotline, although taking calls from the lonely, hurt and depressed is one of the center’s primary functions. In addition to its trauma-intervention hotline, the center also organizes outreach programs for the prevention of suicide and sexual assault and holds post-trauma support groups for the survivors of crises.

“A lot of times people think Crisis Call Center, and they just think phones,” Trentham says. “But we also have the SASS [Sexual Assault Support Services] program. We do face-to-face advocacy.”

SASS volunteers are on call 24 hours a day to assist victims of sexual assault. The program provides victims with cab fare to the hospital, sends volunteers to accompany victims to the hospital and finds temporary places for victims to stay, if needed. Volunteers will even accompany victims to court if charges are pressed against attackers. SASS also conducts bi-monthly support groups for sexual-assault survivors.

Not every caller is in crisis. Trentham says that only about 30 to 35 percent of calls involve a life-threatening situation—either to the caller or to another person.

“We get calls about all kinds of things. It could be suicide, child abuse, elder abuse, sexual assault. … [But] a lot of our calls are from people who are seeking resources in the community.”

Trentham says that about 50 percent of callers need to know how to find access to food, shelter or support groups. Some call to say that the power company has cut off their electricity, and they have no money to pay the bill. To assist callers, the center maintains databases of community resources.

Other callers simply need someone to talk to.

“You never know when grief will strike you,” Trentham says. “It may be 2:30 in the morning. There’s always someone here.”

Murtha wasn’t sure what to expect when she started volunteering. But she found that most calls aren’t tension-filled.

“It’s not as scary as you think it is, because when you’re on the phone with [callers], you’re just making a new friend.”

Crisis Call Center’s call reception area is an inviting living room in a single-story brick house. Comfortable seating abounds. Sun pours through the windows. Murtha and Marlyn Scholl, a 46-year-old volunteer who is currently studying social work at the University of Nevada, Reno, sit at their desks. Scholl feels good about the call she’s just had.

“It started out with a suicide,” she says. “It ended with [the caller] talking about his job goals [for the future]. Sometimes, it’s just needing someone to care.”

Scholl has been volunteering on and off at the center for five years. She says that she’s seen a marked increase in calls in the last few months from people who have lost their jobs. She says that a high number of overflow calls are routed in from Las Vegas where times are especially tough.

Murtha and Scholl belong to a group of about 70 volunteers, who range in age from 16 to 70. Volunteers typically serve one four-hour shift a week—and are never left without backup. If a life-threatening call comes in, others are on hand to guide the volunteer through the call.

“Sometimes people think [answering calls] is a real downer,” Murtha says. “But it’s not. You walk away thinking you’ve changed the world in a really positive way. It’s very rare that, hanging up from a call, we haven’t come up with at least one thing for [the caller] to do.”

Volunteers say that, while they might feel good after hanging up with a caller, they usually won’t find out how, or if, the caller finds resolution. Sometimes, though, “thank yous” will come in—often, says Murtha, about a year after the initial call for help.

The bulletin board at Crisis Call Center has a section for those thank-you notes. One former caller sent the center a Christmas card last December.

“Thank you is too shallow for how I feel," the card reads. "All of you were there when I really needed humankind. It has given me faith and hope in my life. I love all of you great people."