September was National Suicide Prevention Month and 2020 is unique. This year, Suicide Prevention Month is during a pandemic exacerbating not just severe mental health issues, but also everyday stress and anxiety.
To be expected, calls and chat messages have been flooding the CONTACT hotline, Mercer County’s crisis resource, which also answers calls made to the National Suicide Prevention hotline. Anyone can call the CONTACT number, or visit the website to use their chat function – which is a live message chat room with one of the volunteers. Some may find typing their feelings easier than communicating them verbally.
With offices in The College of New Jersey, Princeton University, and Pennington, CONTACT is fully staffed seven days per week with volunteers; each volunteer is required to complete 40 hours of training before they begin answering calls. CONTACT is also part of an international organization, International Council for Hotlines, which has its own set of standards for individual organizations, according to CONTACT’s executive director, Eleanor Letcher.
“It’s like a stamp of approval that we have these standards: standards for training, confidentiality, and service. [We have] a whole lot of standards that make us eligible to take the National Suicide Prevention line,” said Letcher.
Letcher has been the executive director of CONTACT for 40 years, and began as a volunteer before that. Letcher now oversees all functions of Mercer County CONTACT, from volunteer training to finances.
“I’m basically in charge of everything,” said Letcher.
CONTACT functions with full anonymity for both the volunteers and their callers, making it a safe space to share thoughts and feelings without judgement. For the most part, volunteers are there to listen, not to give advice. However, if a caller is struggling with other issues such as addiction or domestic abuse, the volunteer will refer the caller to resources pertaining to that specific circumstance.
In only one instance will anonymity be broken, according to Letcher, and that is if the caller is presenting imminent risk of hurting themselves or committing suicide. In such cases, the CONTACT volunteers ask for a location, call 911, and stay on the line until help arrives. Fortunately, imminent danger calls are only about 1-2% of the total calls received, said Letcher. “Usually, talking about one’s problems reduces the crisis level,” she said.
Some people call in just to talk if they are feeling lonely. Volunteer member Neil Brodine recalled times that he simply listened to how someone’s day went or made small talk about the weather with them.
Brodine started volunteering for CONTACT two years ago, after he retired from being in education. After a personal experience with someone who was suicidal, Brodine decided he wanted to spend his free time helping others. Though he likes gardening and going to the beach, he felt he wanted to do more.
“Well, that’s all stuff for me. I want to help people and I have all this free time,” said Brodine.
Now during a pandemic where the whole country has only recently started to open back up from lockdown, both Brodine and Letcher agree that mental health issues are more prevalent.
“I can’t even tell my clients to go out and see a movie,” said Brodine, “because there aren’t any open!”
Letcher emphasized the impact this pandemic has had on college students. With online classes, clubs, and sports being canceled and the obligation to social distance, college students are struggling more with day-to-day anxiety and stress, according to Letcher.
People who use the chat option for CONTACT are mostly under the age of 25, while most of the calls are by people over the age of 25. It is most likely a generational thing, as the younger people grew up not making phone calls, according to Letcher.
A new number is predicted to replace the current National Suicide Prevention number in 2022, according to Letcher. This number is 988, which will be much easier to remember and just as convenient as dialling 911. When this number is implemented, Letcher expects the number of calls to exponentially increase. Until then, people can call the national number or the CONTACT number for help which are 800-273-8255 and 609-896-2120, respectively.
Letcher shared a piece of advice: “If you’re having anxiety, problems, or concerns, talking to a non-judgemental listener helps. You can talk about whatever you’re concerned about and the person you talk to will keep it confidential and will listen to you. Talking it out is the important part.”
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health problems, help is only a few clicks away.
CONTACT Chat: www.crisischat.org
CONTACT website: https://contactofmercer.org/crisischat/
The National Suicide Hotline: 800-273-8255