by Rashed Mian and Christopher Twarowski
Photos by Ethan Stokes
Rachel Priest was a sophomore at Roslyn High School when she started cutting herself.
She wore the same baggy sweatshirt for days at a time to conceal her wounds—a bevy of horizontal slashes up and down the length of her arms. Though she says she didn’t have many friends, it didn’t take long before other students noticed. Her sweatshirt slipped down one day and revealed what she had done. One friend literally dragged her to the school counselor. The school contacted her parents.
Priest swore she wouldn’t do it again.
“I was really good at lying,” she tells the Press.
She started seeing a therapist. But the carvings didn’t stop.
The following year (or 12th grade—Priest says post-traumatic stress disorder has blocked out certain events and blurred her memory), the teenager attempted suicide at her home in the wealthy Nassau neighborhood by poisoning herself. Halfway through, she had a change of heart and was rushed by her parents to the emergency room at Winthrop University Hospital in Mineola.
She stayed there for a week and spent three days under suicide watch.
But her acts of self-mutilation still didn’t stop. In her freshman year of college, the 17-year-old severely scorched her wrist by holding the flames of a lighter to it, resulting in second- to third-degree burns. She was diagnosed with bipolar disorder, otherwise known as manic-depressive disorder, her sophomore year.
Though her scars are barely visible today, Priest, now 27 and about to begin a masters program in community health at Hofstra University this September, recalls the vivid memories of the darkness that nearly consumed her in order to help those still struggling with life. She travels to schools and colleges with Dale Camhi, Metro-NY regional director of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), sharing her story with anyone willing to listen.
“I was lonely, I felt hopeless, I didn’t want to get out of bed,” she says during an interview at Camhi’s home in East Rockaway. Occasionally she chokes up—her eyes sometimes looking down at a table and other times staring straight into her inquisitors’. “It was a really a feeling of utter despair, there’s absolutely no other way to put it. I was like, ‘The end is here and that’s fine with me.’ I had made my peace with it.”
Rachel Priest is but one of an estimated million people who attempt suicide each year, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). According to the agency’s latest figures, which were released last week, the 2007 national suicide rate of 34,598 deaths is the highest since 1995. The rate per 100,000 for the 45-to-54 age group (17.7) is the highest since 1977, while the rate for those aged 55 to 64 (15.5) is the highest since 1990.
Though the CDC’s 2007 rates were slightly lower for youth aged 15 to 24 (9.7), recent data from the New York State Department of Health show a disturbing trend among adolescents and young adults in Nassau and Suffolk counties. According to vital statistics data as of March 2009, suicide deaths among 15- to 19-year-olds more than doubled in Nassau between 2006 and 2007. And suicide deaths in the same age group tripled during that time in Suffolk.
The American Association of Suicidology ranks suicide as the third-leading cause of death among teenagers and young people aged 15 to 24. Yet it is most likely the No. 1 killer, say experts, since it’s often tough to distinguish a suicide as such in certain cases unless there is a note left behind. Families of the deceased will typically do their best to keep the tragedy’s truth a family secret so the fatality is officially ruled an accident.
Though the national figures lag, the current volume of calls received by Long Island’s two 24-hour telephone crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotlines—Nassau’s Long Island Crisis Center and Suffolk’s Response of Suffolk County—are also up, both nonprofit groups say. Counselors at the Long Island Crisis Center have been experiencing a recent uptick in suicide calls, says Executive Director Linda Leonard. Response of Suffolk County’s counselors have seen an increase in alcohol- and finance-related calls, its executive director, Meryl Cassidy, tells the Press.
It’s 11 a.m. on a Thursday in the tiny headquarters of the Long Island Crisis Center (LICC), located above a church nursery in a building behind the Bellmore Presbyterian Church. A handful of volunteers and staffers crowd a main room lined with desks and phones. Workstations fill several adjoining offices. Rosters and schedules plaster the walls. Every inch of space is utilized.
This is where the center’s roughly 100 highly trained volunteer counselors field more than 10,000 emergency calls each year—ranging from callers who are crying, teetering on suicide, to those with financial, relationship or substance-abuse problems, to those just seeking an open ear, and a friendly voice to talk to.
All remain anonymous. The center does not have caller ID. Seven 24/7 emergency hotlines are operated here, along with a live, anonymous online chat for those who wish to communicate via computer rather than the phone. The LICC also takes walk-ins.
“We provide a really life-saving, unique service to the community,” explains Leonard, who has been with the group since 1975, when it was called Middle Earth, a reference to the setting of many J.R.R. Tolkien novels. (The group was founded in 1971.) “Anyone, any family, is vulnerable to experiencing a crisis, at any time, whether or not it’s the ultimate crisis of suicide or whether its depression or parenting communication, relationship problems or substance abuse—any family could experience a crisis. When that happens, we’re here.”
Each of those counselors has a story—or several—which they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.
Neal (who requested his last name be withheld, as did all the phone counselors interviewed for this story), 56, a lifelong Long Islander, former school teacher and seven-year volunteer at the center, recalls a 90-minute phone call with a woman who was suicidal, hysterically crying—and driving. She had already ingested a large number of pills and alcohol and was at risk of killing herself. Through keeping her on the phone while counseling her, he convinced her to drive to a police station.
“A person was able to get help despite the fact that they already stepped over that line where they could’ve done great harm to themselves,” he explains.
“An anonymous hotline is the most logical first step that someone like that is going to take,” adds Leonard.