Anthony Bourdain
Anthony Bourdain
Mario Tama/Getty Images for CNN Turner Press Room

What Do Suicide Prevention Hotlines Look for in Call Center Volunteers?

The suicide of someone famous, like a Kate Spade or an Anthony Bourdain, ignites a hunt for clues in news media and in private conversations. Some can’t believe their celebrity heroes took their seemingly perfect lives. In the dash for answers to the difficult question of why a Spade or Bourdain died, news articles and social media posts frequently reference the national suicide hotline number: 1-800-273-8255.

Suicide baffles people. And it is clear, at least to the local hotline volunteers who spoke with the Observer, that many callers have no idea how to think about suicide. After high-profile deaths, many people call the hotlines to check whether they are vulnerable, asking questions such as “What are the signs of suicide?" and "How do I know if I am at risk?” Answering those questions is a departure for hotline workers, whose primary job is to help people in crisis.

“Intervention is here and now and today,” says Jenyce Gush, the director of volunteer services for the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas, the region’s call center for the hotline.

The call center marks its 50th anniversary this year, and Gush has been there since 1988, after her brother took his life in his late 20s. The burnout rate for hotline volunteers is high, Gush says. They have to start with enough emotional fortitude to handle topics such as masturbation, child abuse, incest and the occasional completed suicide over the phone. Many who apply to work for the call center, Gush has learned, are just as confused about suicide and its causes as the average hotline caller.

Gush is the person who gets the calls from would-be hotline volunteers. After the June week in which Spade and Bourdain died, Gush took more than 150 calls from North Texans wanting to volunteer. That’s a surge above the normal rate of callers, and she’s sure it had to do with news stories directing people to the hotline. That usually happens after a high-profile death. The media attention brings out well-intentioned people who are so far removed from the realities of suicide that Gush says she can tell over the phone they’d never make it working for the hotline.

Some are religious people who were moved by the Holy Spirit to help people with suicidal thoughts. Gush says they’re more likely to direct a caller to Jesus than a local hospital or support group. After Spade's and Bourdain's deaths, Gush received a call from a woman who had a dream she should work the hotline.

Clinically trained mental health professionals, too, often make poor hotline volunteers because they’re more interested in diagnosing callers by diving into their pasts rather than finding immediate solutions. Police negotiators, Gush says, are often not a good fit for the hotline because they're more concerned with public safety than an individual caller's problems.

Sometimes racists squeak their way past the volunteer screening. Gush says she's had people working for her — not for long — who have refused to help callers because they sounded too “ethnic” over the phone.

“We’re not gonna have that,” Gush says.

Then there are people who think they are experts at suicide prevention because they have thought about ending their lives or because someone close to them died by suicide. The crisis center's policy is to turn away volunteer applicants who have had close experiences with suicide in the previous two years for fear they will rely too much on their own experience and misdirect people.

“Me telling you what I did is going to be of no use to you,” hotline worker and volunteer trainer Becky Lee-Dennis says.

While Gush screens the bad potential volunteers, Lee-Dennis teaches the good ones. During a 10-week training program offered twice a year, the crisis center instructors show hotline volunteers how to guide people away from the thoughts leading to suicide. The best type of hotline worker is a layperson, someone without any professional experience who can carry on an uncomfortable conversation with strangers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported earlier this month that suicide rates rose in nearly every state from 1999 to 2016. Texas saw was nearly a 19-percent uptick in suicides during that time period. A key takeaway from the CDC report was that more than half of the people who took their lives did not have any reported mental illnesses.

The search for a caller’s rationale for suicide is nowhere on the hotline volunteers’ priorities. They are focused on helping potential victims regain control of their lives in the present. The small details or happenings — an eviction, a layoff, a breakup — are what hotline workers look for.

Kasi Stoops, a volunteer who went through the training last fall, says she was not sure at first if she was the right fit. She figured it would be a highly emotional gig, one that would require a firm grasp on mental health issues. The training offered role-playing opportunities, and the classes listened to real hotline calls. Stoops, a Dallas resident, became more confident as she learned that a hotline worker’s job is to assess the most recent events in a person’s life that led him or her to call — and do that without making a judgment. Volunteers offer counselors, unemployment advice and other resources.

“You let the caller choose what they want to talk about throughout the call,” Stoops says. “You help them identify solutions to their own problems.”

The collective sorrow for a loss of a celebrity can keep people confused about suicide. Those who don't understand the mental health concerns often behind suicidal thoughts wonder: If a highly successful person kills himself, how is an ordinary caller in crisis over a job loss, a divorce or other common stresses supposed to make it?

That conundrum helps Lee-Dennis understand why she gets calls from a growing number of young people, some still in grade school. Many of them contemplate the aftermath of suicide — the candlelight vigils and memorializing news tributes — before they think about the reasons one is drawn to suicide. The sensational presentation of what happens after suicide has taken a priority over what goes on in the days and hours before suicide, Lee-Dennis says.

She thinks about her 9-year-old daughter and the generation growing up with her. As a mother, Lee-Dennis says the preservation of human life begins long before suicide becomes an option. When people are groomed to think about life as somehow being perfect for some and wretched for others, she says, people are set up for failure.

“Life is going to hurt,” she says.

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