WESTFIELD–Fran McTernan answered the phone at 12:30 a.m. and heard a woman say, “I’m so glad you’re there. I’m sitting in my car Googling how to kill myself and your number came up.”
McTernan, a volunteer listener at CONTACT We Care, a local crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline, talked to the caller, named Sarah, for two hours. She listened as Sarah told her she was in her mid-30s and felt like there was nothing to live for.
Like all CONTACT listeners, McTernan was empathetic and attempted to guide Sarah to her own conclusions that there were reasons for her not to take her life and what actions steps she could take to make things better for herself. By the end of the call Sarah told McTernan she felt better.
“I went home and went to sleep feeling in my heart she was going to be okay,” McTernan said.
Had Sarah called CONTACT We Care one week earlier she would have reached a recording telling her to call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE – ironic in that Sarah chose to call CONTACT because its number was easier to dial, with no words to transpose into numbers. In addition, had Sarah bothered to make a second call to the national line she might have faced a longer wait time before someone picked up, according to Joanne Oppelt, CONTACT’s executive director.
CONTACT expanded its hours of operation from 7 a.m.-9 p.m. to 24 hours per day, seven days a week, on Dec. 3, the day Sarah called. In the first week of 24/7 operation CONTACT increased the number of calls and texts it handled by 57 percent, from an average of 35 per day to 55 per day.
“Our move to being a 24/7 crisis line will undoubtedly save lives and came at a very important time of the year, during the holiday season, which 80 percent of people find somewhat or very stressful, and so soon after many New Jerseyans lost so much to Hurricane Sandy,” Oppelt said. “To see such a
dramatic increase in calls handled shows just how vital our service is and how important it is for callers to be able to quickly reach an empathetic listener.”
CONTACT’s expanded hours was made possible by a $50,000 grant from The Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide (SPTS). Previously calls to Lifeline originating in New Jersey between 11:00 p.m. and 7:00 a.m. were routed to Florida, resulting in a delay in answering that the society’s president and co-founder, Scott Fritz, found unacceptable.
SPTS provided CONTACT with the funding because CONTACT has demonstrated a commitment to being there for callers in distress, Fritz said. The grant will cover the expanded hours for three months.
“There are people who call all times of the day and night who are in stress,” Fritz said. “It’s vitally important that these calls are answered in New Jersey by people who can direct them to local resources.”
Oppelt said CONTACT We Care is the only general listening line in Central and Northern New Jersey, answering both Lifeline calls and those that come in on a local line. CONTACT is highly effective because the nonprofit is well managed and cost-efficient, with 100-plus listeners – nearly all volunteers – and a paid staff of just three, she added. The agency answers more than 12,000 calls and texts annually. Seven new listeners were recruited to enable coverage of the expanded hours.
“Greater efficiency translates into a greater number of calls being answered for every dollar spent,” Oppelt said.
Regardless of the numbers, McTernan believes having listeners available to quickly pick up calls around the clock is essential to those in distress.
“Callers past 10 seem to more in need and more upset,” she said. “Once it gets dark and people settle in for the night the world gets very lonely.”
Before hanging up Sarah told McTernan she felt better, would call her doctor and talk to her husband and would call a suicide prevention line again if she returned to feeling desperate.
“They call us because people around them don’t want to hear about their problems,” McTernan said. “The people who love you are going to want to shake it out of you. That’s why what we do is so important. We fill a vital niche – we are listeners.”
CONTACT We Care serves Central and Northern New Jersey and is a primary responder to calls to Lifeline originating in New Jersey. Callers also reach CONTACT by dialing 1-908-232-2880 or texting “CWC” to 839863. All calls and texts are anonymous and confidential.
To find out about becoming a volunteer listener, call 1-908-301-1899.
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