Diagnosed with “moderate depression,” she was no longer seeing a psychologist or therapist—adding that she stopped “because seeing a therapist is not acceptable in her family.”
The counselor convinced her to put a friend on the phone, who agreed to bring the girl to the school’s wellness center to get her neck checked out—her head had started to hurt from the fall. They never showed up. The counselor then contacted the school’s health department director—and the girl was eventually transported to the hospital.
But not all calls have happy endings.
“Hello, hi,” began a 20-minute conversation with a 17-year-old girl last week, reads another assessment. “She was “crying hysterically” about a recent breakup with her boyfriend of three years and had swallowed “at least 20 Bena[dryl allergy pills], many Tylenols (number unknown) and drank Tylenol.”
She “said her stomach hurt and that she was nauseous, dizzy and light-headed,” it continues. She “stated that she wanted to call back on her house phone as her cell phone was dying, client was asked for her name one more time and gave it to counselor, promising to call back and saying that she never broke her promises, she hung up.”
It’s a little after 7 p.m. later that night and Rose Carpenzano, online coordinator at Response of Suffolk County (ROSC) (the exact location of which was omitted by request), is sitting behind a desk in front of a computer screen waiting for the next instant-message chat to begin.
Files of previous “callers,” as she refers to those who message Response about their problems instead of dialing the telephone, flank her computer. The online program, called Hear2Help, began in 2006 and is available from 5 p.m. to 11 p.m., though counselors will stay online as long as needed.
Carpenzano started as a volunteer in 2005. She was “just looking to give back,” she explains.
“We get a lot of cutting,” she says of the adolescents who write in to chat. “Self-mutilation, self-injury.”
Cassidy adds: “Peer stuff, relationship stuff, a lot of stuff going on with parents, a lot of pressure at school. Substance abuse.”
Cassidy says about 70 percent of those who write in online are young people, some as young as 13 or 14 years old. And chats have been initiated by people as far away as Ireland. As they do at the Long Island Crisis Center, counselors here conduct fatality assessments to rate the level of risk to the callers’ well-being. But just because someone is self-mutilating doesn’t necessarily mean they’re intending to kill themselves, the two women explain.
“We don’t consider self-injury a suicide, unless they’re saying that they’re intending on suicide,” explains Carpenzano. “A lot of people just self-injure. The problem is, they can cut too deep.”
“Or the wrong way,” adds Cassidy.
“I’ve spoken to people who’ve had infections from hurting themselves,” continues Carpenzano. “And in that case I would try to encourage them to go to the hospital and be treated medically.”
As Carpenzano’s shift ends and she prepares to head home for the day, the evening has just begun for Carolyn and Pat, two volunteer counselors covering ROSC’s phone center across the hall. And tonight’s a busy night.
Pat’s already on a call as a new one chimes in. Carolyn answers.
“Sounds like a lot is going on right now,” she responds, in a soft, soothing voice.
“Sounds like you feel so very hurt,” says Pat.
“It was a female that called that was crying and upset,” Carolyn, an elementary school teacher, explains several minutes later. She’s been volunteering for four years. “She felt alone and she needed someone to talk to… She was in her sad, mad place. And when we ended, she was back in her happy place.”
Another call. Pat’s still on the other line. Carolyn fields it—it’s a teenage girl who was home alone and feeling lonely. She tells Carolyn that she recently had suicidal thoughts. After several minutes of listening and counseling, Carolyn directs her to go to a neighbor’s house and offers to remain on the phone while she walks there. The girl insists she’s now okay, but gives Carolyn her phone number for a follow-up call later that evening.
Carolyn answers another call. It doesn’t last long. It’s what the counselors call a “sex grat,” in which a male caller has dialed in—to a crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline—for sexual gratification and to masturbate over the phone. Cassidy explains that such calls make up a portion of all help hotlines, not just ROSC’s.
Pat ends her call, 47 minutes after it began. She explains she’s had previous calls that have lasted for three hours. It was an elderly man in Florida “facing a multitude of issues,” she says. “He’s having a cancer scare. His wife is ill. He has a daughter who is being abused and there are two grandchildren. In addition to that, he’s been told that they’re going to lose their Section Eight housing in Florida and he may have to move in with his daughter.”
Another call for Pat. Another tragedy to divert. Another person in crisis. A minute later, the phone rings again.
Carolyn checks in on the girl from earlier. Pat’s off the phone and appears out of breath.
“She’s very suicidal. She’s had many attempts. She’s in Suffolk,” she explains.
“She’s a cutter and she’s had suicidal thoughts before and she’s having suicidal thoughts tonight. And she’s drinking,” she adds. “She had been suicidal, and tonight she’s also homicidal. She was very angry at the father of her child and said if he comes over she’d cut him, too. Slurring her words.”
The phone is ringing again.
Pat’s back on the line again.
“Sounds like you miss her very much,” she responds to her new caller. It’s someone who’s been having nightmares and has had problems with her medications. She’s not home alone but wants Pat to give her a call back later in the night to make sure she’s OK.
Another call. It’s a man who misses his girlfriend and complains he doesn’t have enough money for medications. He tells Pat he’s got $40 and his pills cost $7 each. He’s worried he can’t get the right amount of pills he needs.
Pat, a retired school teacher, has been counseling at ROSC for six years. She wouldn’t want to be anywhere else, she says, describing the group as “a warm place of wonderful kindred spirits who are all just trying to be present for somebody in that moment of their crisis.”