Inside NYC’s busiest suicide call center

Crisis counselors are trained to the unusual task of working with people over the phone and not face-to-face.

They can’t see them, and they don’t know where they are.

 But they save lives, using only their voices and a few taps on a keyboard.

 LifeNet, a free and confidential hotline for people battling struggles from substance abuse to suicide, operates its largest call in New York City, at the Mental Health Association of New York City’s Crisis Contact Center. The office fields calls from all five boroughs, from those who are feeling desperate, or suicidal, or perhaps just need someone to listen.

And LifeNet gets hundreds of calls a day. Every year, 100,000 calls come into the center. The call center answers more calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline than any other center nationwide, fielding the majority out of the estimated 800,000 calls the NSPL will receive this year.

Many are people broken by dark thoughts. Some want a referral for a relative. Others, a few a month, require calls to 911 to dispatch an ambulance or rescue team. None in memory have committed suicide while on the line.

Metro spent an afternoon at the Mental Health Association’s Broadway office and 56 calls came in one two-hour period alone. One caller was depressed, he said, because his illness caused him a great deal of pain and he was thinking of ending his life. A counselor directed him to a nearby hospital, which he promised to walk to.

Others helped by the hotline have donated to the program – one teenager, after calling in suicidal, sent a $10 donation later that night with a note explaining how close to death he had felt before calling. The calls are answered by about 40 staffers who are mental health professionals.

Dely Santiago, 28, a Williamsburg psychotherapist, asks callers things like where they are, what they’re thinking and what led to those thoughts. She then tries to steer them toward help, asking if they would be willing to go to a nearby hospital or have an ambulance escort them.

“Some people call and they know that’s a possibility, but it’s not what they want,” she said. She determines if the person is an immediate danger to themselves or others – if they report feeling sad, for example, or say they are ready to swallow a bottle of nearby pills – and whether the best help might be an appointment or an ambulance. A serious call might require 20 to 30 minutes, and a shorter referral call could be two minutes or seven, she said.

Because she almost always refers callers to a hospital or elsewhere for help, Santiago never really knows the end result.

“I know I can’t save everyone in the world, but I’d like to try,” she said.

When do they get the most calls?

Santiago said more calls arrive when a person is out of their usual routine: at night, on holidays or sitting by themselves with too much to think about on a weekend.

“This phone is nonstop on Saturday mornings,” Santiago said. “When you’re busy, you don’t have time to wallow. It’s hard to manage when you’re home sitting alone with your thoughts.”

Director Marshall Ellis adds that the staffers receive weeks of training that includes taking care of their own mental health.

Signs posted in high-risk areas

Life Net has signs, as well as phones, posted on bridges throughout the city, including the George Washington Bridge and the Tappan Zee.

Fields calls from 12 different numbers

1-800-LifeNet is the main crisis intervention number for the Department of Health and is advertised on city subway posters and on television. The center is the hub of all inbound calls for a dozen crisis hotlines and different numbers, including a Spanish suicide hotline and an anti-bullying hotline. The downtown office also receives calls from an NFL life line, a crisis hotline for current and former NFL players. New Yorkers calling 311 who ask to talk to a suicide or mental health professional are also be forwarded to the crisis center.
 
Volunteers also help
Elsewhere in the city, others answer similar calls. The Samaritans of New York’s suicide prevention hotline answers about 60,000 calls a year, director Alan Ross estimated.
 
Different on phone
Many mental health programs train to provide one-on-one care in an office where counselors face the client, Ellis said. But over a phone, it can be different. Staffers don’t know where the callers are or even if they are being completely truthful with their answers, so it is a different type of reading tones or answers. “You have a different dynamic not being able to see them,” he said.

Warning signs

National Suicide Prevention Awareness Week is in early September. For help or to report a suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Center Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).
Signs that someone might be thinking about suicide:
   
Talking about wanting to die or to kill themselves
   
Looking for a way to kill themselves, such as searching online or buying a gun
   
Talking about feeling hopeless or having no reason to live
   
Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
   
Talking about being a burden to others
   
Increasing their use of alcohol or drugs
   
Acting anxious or agitated or behaving recklessly
   
Sleeping too little or too much
   
Withdrawing or isolating themselves
   
Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
   
Displaying extreme mood swings

New Yorkers can also call LifeNet at 1-800-LIFENET to get referrals to mental health programs and resources. Online, 800LifeNet.org offers info about common mental health issues along with program and medication listings.



News
Entertainment
Sports
Lifestyle
National

California passes 'yes-means-yes' campus sexual assault bill

Californian lawmakers passed a law on Thursday requiring universities to adopt "affirmative consent" language in their definitions of consensual sex, part of a nationwide drive to curb sexual assault on…

National

Syrian refugees top 3 million, half of all…

By Stephanie NebehayGENEVA (Reuters) - Three million Syrian refugees will have registered in neighboring countries as of Friday, but many remain trapped by the advance…

International

North Korean leader's money manager defects in Russia:…

A senior North Korean banking official who managed money for leader Kim Jong Un has defected in Russia and was seeking asylum in a third country, a South Korean newspaper…

Local

MAP: New York City Street Closures August 29,…

The Department of Transportation and NYPD said there may be residual delays near all of the street closures on August 29, 31 and 31. Several streets and avenues will be…

Going Out

'Friends' coffeehouse Central Perk coming to NYC —…

"Friends" is coming back for a one-off special: "The One with the Free Coffee." Warner Bros. is bringing a pop-up replica of Central Perk, the…

Movies

Interview: 'As Above, So Below' directors: 5 ways…

The fraternal directors of the found footage horror "As Above, So Below" dish on the best ways to frighten the bejesus out of audiences.

Movies

Criterion's new Jacques Demy box mixes the light…

Jacques Demy, the most effervescent of French New Wave filmmakers, gets a Criterion box all to himself, with classics like "The Umbrellas of Cherbourg."

Entertainment

Comedian Joan Rivers, 81, rushed to New York…

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Acerbic comedian and fashion critic Joan Rivers was rushed to Mount Sinai Hospital in New York on Thursday after she reportedly…

NFL

3 things we learned in the Giants preseason…

The final score didn’t matter — a 16-13 win by the Giants — but it would’ve been nice to finally see Big Blue’s new-look offense get on track.

NFL

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots, 49ers start…

NFL Power Rankings: Seahawks, Broncos, Patriots start at top

U.S. Soccer

5 facts about new England captain Wayne Rooney

Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney was named as the new England captain by coach Roy Hodgson on Thursday.

NFL

Jets vs. Eagles: 3 things to watch

A win on Thursday night at the Eagles would give the Jets a 3-1 record and just their second winning preseason under head coach Rex Ryan.

Style

Trend: White hot on the 2014 Emmy's red…

White was one of the big trends on the Emmy's red carpet.

Food

Recipe: Samuel Adams beer-marinated grilled shrimp

Summer calls for two things: a cold beer and light food. Sam Adams' Latitude 48 IPA fairly bursts with citrus notes, making it an ideal marinade…

Wellbeing

4 healthy ingredient swaps to make your meals…

When it comes to eating well, everyone knows they could be doing better. But cooking in an apartment on a busy schedule is a recipe…

Wellbeing

Heart trumps brain when it comes to movies…

When you need a good cry, do you reach for the movie that’s “based on a true story”? Science says you’re giving your brain far…