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Inside Long Island Suicide and Crisis Hotlines

Inside Long Island's crisis hotlines and the lives of those who reach out for help

Then the phone rings—the first of two calls received within 40 minutes. Everyone stops what they’re doing. Silence.

Kristin, a 20-year-old volunteer in the adjacent room answers the line, with Associate Director Theresa Buhse supervising.

“Hello, Long Island Crisis Center,” she says in a calming tone.


About 15 minutes later, the call complete, Buhse explains it was the mother of an 11-year-old daughter who is “out of control.” As is the case in many situations, Kristin referred the woman to a specialist from the center’s massive database of professionals focused on particular needs and services—in this case, a therapist specializing in adoption issues.

“We’re like firemen when the phone rings,” says Neal. “[We] do what we’re trained to do.”

Long Island Crisis Center volunteer counselor Neal

The number of calls to the center have increased from previous years, explains Leonard and Buhse, with many having to do with the tough economic climate. In addition, calls concerning heroin, bullying and cyberbullying—in which children and teens are tormented or harassed by others via the Internet or social networking sites—have also gone up. Suicidal callers, which account for about 20 percent of the center’s overall volume, are also on the rise, up about 3 to 4 percent from recent years, adds Leonard.

And it’s the suicide calls that most remain ingrained in counselors’ minds. The callers also require specialized handling.

Counselors complete a “lethality assessment” during and following such calls, ranking the caller’s risk level for killing themselves. It includes whether the caller has had prior attempts, a plan and the means to carry it out, among other details. Counselors listen intently. They explain the finality of suicide as a permanent solution to what might be a temporary problem. They also try to establish a “Suicide Contract,” a verbal pact in which the caller agrees not to kill themselves, but rather, call the center or another crisis hotline if the suicidal thoughts return. They’ll also ask for ways to follow-up with a suicidal caller.

“We don’t demean the fact that they have these feelings of not wanting to live anymore,” explains Neal. “We don’t deny the fact that it’s extraordinarily painful to be going through the crisis that we’re going through. We don’t even negate the idea that suicide is one of the options many people consider at points when they feel like there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”

What the counselors do give is hope.

The LIRR suicide prevention poster. Callers from Nassau reach counselors at the Long Island Crisis Center. Calls from Suffolk are answered by Response.

“Is this the hotline for the LIRR?” began an early morning, 12-minute conversation last month, according to its lethality assessment, shared with the Press. The caller was referring to a toll-free hotline set up through a joint initiative last year between the LICC and the Long Island Rail Road (LIRR) to combat a gruesome reality: death by train. The hotline is advertised on posters at the railway’s 124 stations. Callers in Nassau are routed to the LICC. Calls from Suffolk are answered by Response.

The 57-year-old man had seen a poster on a taxi in Jamaica.

He “expressed it was the end of a five-year journey, after losing family due to his infidelity, rejection by three children, now having issues with live-in girlfriend who is unhappy with changes in his financial status, and now client has a diagnosis of cancer,” writes the counselor who took the call. He “said he wanted a painless end, and if illness is terminal he does not want the side effects of treatment. Client mentioned he has substance abuse issues.”

He “said he was in a dark, dark place; he has feelings of shame, guilt, depression, emptiness and sleeps a lot so he does not have to deal with the emotional pain,” it continues. “Thinks he will do it in a couple of months after taking care of financial issues pertaining to daughter.”

Volunteer counselor-in-training Kristin handles an emergency call while Buhse supervises.

Sixteen people died by suicide by train in 2007, according to the LIRR. The following year, seven. In 2009 there were 14. Through April 2010, two. Leonard explains that even if the program saves one life it is a success. It appears in this case, it did.

Before hanging up, the man agreed to phone back the following week, saying he was grateful for the sympathetic ear, and telling the counselor he had helped a lot. Leonard says they receive a handful of life-saving calls from the LIRR program each month—she just wishes the posters were featured more prominently outside on the train platforms as opposed to their frequent placement inside ticket booths.

Just how the collaboration came to pass, she adds, was nothing short of destiny:

“One day, one of our counselors was taking the railroad home, and just serendipity, a guy comes up to her and says, ‘You see that train there, I’m going to jump in front of it. Could you do me a favor and give this note to my mother after I do that?’ So, she counseled him.”

Other callers learn about the LICC from school workshops the group puts on. Such was the case with a 19-year-old college student who called this April from her single dorm room.

“I need to talk to someone about what happened,” she told a counselor. The girl had attempted to kill herself by hanging 20 minutes earlier.

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