Twice a week Mike Keller helps someone through a crisis.
From his little cubicle in the upstairs offices of the Family Service Association of Bucks County, Keller answers the phones for CONTACT, a suicide and crisis helpline. Tonight he’s talking with a woman who received some bad news from her doctor. Many of her loved ones have passed away and now, she says, she’s thinking about suicide.
It’s an intimidating call, but Keller is more than up to the task.
“I enjoy talking with people. I enjoy helping them to see that whatever it is today is not necessarily what it will be tomorrow,” said Keller.
“Most people who are suicidal, its not a permanent state of mind, its a temporary state of mind,” he said. “So our goal is to help them get through that, to be safe for now, and knowing that by tomorrow they will see things differently.”
CONTACT needs more people like Keller. Over the last several months the helpline has received a record number of calls, which isn’t exactly surprising. Last year SEPTA posted the hotline number in every station in the region. Since then, call volume has steadily increased in the surrounding five-country area, but it’s too soon to know if there’s a causal connection.
Then there is the issue of repeat callers. CONTACT’s warmline is for people who need help but aren’t necessarily suicidal. Many warmline callers check in frequently — some call on a daily basis. And more people are discovering the warmline every day, which has started a snowballing process.
And it is a good thing that more people know who to call during a mental health emergency. Unfortunately, there just aren’t enough volunteers to pick up the phone.
“Across the board people are really afraid to volunteer for something big like this,” said Maria Picciotti, CONTACT’s call center coordinator. “It’s scary out the gate, and it takes a really special person.”
Picciotti says the stigma of mental illness can intimidate potential volunteers.
“Someone has cancer or someone’s died, we bake them a casserole. Someone says they’re suicidal and we run,” said Picciotti.
“We need to embrace each other. We need to help each other through it. Cause it’s more often than not that people feel this way.”
CONTACT is open 7 days a week, 12 hours a day and is completely run by volunteers. Right now there are between 35 and 40 volunteers working two shifts per month. But it’s not nearly enough. Picciotti says that to have every shift staffed by two people answering phones CONTACT would need 120 volunteers.
“Yeah,” said Picciotti. “We need a lot.”
CONTACT is ramping recruitment efforts over the next six months. Volunteers are put through 32 hours of training and group supervision. The training starts off with a six-week course covering things like suicide, mental health, depression, alcohol and drugs as well as child abuse and elder abuse.
When volunteer numbers are low Picciotti herself will answer phones, which she does quite a bit these days. If no one is available, the call gets redirected to the National Suicide Hotline, but Picciotti says she prefers a local volunteer pick up the call.
“We know the local resources to give them. We know if they have a local community behavioral health center,” said Picciotti. “We have a complete resources database that allows us to, by someone’s zip code, find the closest service for them whether its a food pantry, whether its help with their financial services or something that they need that may be different or to connect them with a therapist.”
Both Picciotti and Keller say volunteering for CONTACT is deeply rewarding. They say CONTACT’s high number of repeat callers is a sign that many people just need someone to listen to them.
“All they have to do is be a good listener and they’re given the rest of the tools to do it,” said Picciotti. “They’re not expected to be a superhero.”