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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

“I’ll never leave,” she smiles.

“Every single person’s got a story,” adds Cassidy. “That’s what we do here: We listen to the stories so people don’t feel so alone. And that’s half the battle for a lot of them. Loneliness kills people.”

And those stories don’t just come in via an online chat or the telephone, she explains (though ROSC receives about 17,000 hotline calls annually).


Response of Suffolk County’s Executive Director Meryl Cassidy during a busy night at the crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline call center.

Since President Barack Obama took office, she says, the White House has been receiving suicidal letters from people dealing with tough financial times, losing their homes, or nearing the end of their rope. Those letters addressed to the president are now being sent back to local crisis centers and suicide prevention groups, such as Response, so that those groups can reach out to those in distress. Cassidy believes Obama is the first president to do this.

In addition, she says, her team learned recently that if someone uses Google to research methods of killing themselves, the search engine will suggest a phone number routed to their hotline.

“[So] instead of putting together some type of barbiturate cocktail, they called us,” she says.

The battle against suicide doesn’t end just because someone’s life did—in many cases, instead, it gets amplified.

Building A Bridge

Walking through Mulcahy’s Pub in Wantagh on May 12, it was hard not to notice that everyone seemed to be wearing Converse All-Star sneakers. Zebra-print balloons filled the air. Teenage boys and girls giggled wildly. The name “Brittany” glimmered in massive silver letters above the stage.

Yet this was no ordinary birthday party. This was a celebration of Brittany Petrocca, an East Meadow High School student who lost her battle with depression in October 2009 and died by suicide. She was 14 years old.

Response volunteer counselor Carolyn helps an emergency caller through their moment of crisis.

Brittany’s mother Carrie Petrocca held the memorial for the friends and family her daughter left behind. Many in attendance wore T-shirts emblazoned with “To Write Love On Her Arms” (TWLOHA), a nonprofit dedicated to presenting hope and discovering help for people struggling with depression, addiction, self-injury and suicide.

TWLOHA’s founder, Jamie Tworkowski—whom Brittany had always wanted to meet, but never had—was also present. The group, which spreads its message through T-shirts, speaking engagements and other events across the country, has become popular among the Long Island music scene, with bands such as Bayside frequently sporting its clothes during concerts.

Tworkowski, 30, whose parents are from Long Island, created TWLOHA in 2006 after witnessing firsthand the pain depression can cause. He was staying with a friend in Florida when they received a phone call from a girl his friend knew named Renee, who was suffering from depression and abusing drugs. They convinced her to get help at a treatment center.

“She walked in wearing a hoodie and the nurse asked her to take it off,” he told the Press, sitting at a table in Mulcahy’s prior to the memorial, Brittany’s image flashing across the many TVs usually blaring sporting events. “When she took it off, they found a wound that was very fresh, and it actually said the words ‘fuck up.’ She had written the words ‘fuck up’ with a razor blade. The combination of that and the drugs in her system made them say she was too high-risk and she could come back five days later [for treatment].”

Over the course of those five days, Tworkowski wrote a story about the time he spent with Renee. He titled it “To Write Love On Her Arms” and posted it on his MySpace page. Hundreds of messages poured in. That’s when he came up with the idea of printing the T-shirts to raise money for Renee’s treatment. Friends and bands, such as Switchfoot, wore them. Before long, orders came in from across the globe.

Response volunteer counselor Pat fields yet another emergency call during the busy evening.

Just prior to speaking on the stage at Mulcahy’s, Tworkowski confided that he’s been to many events before, but nothing quite like Brittany’s celebration. Never something this personal to celebrate the life of one person. He told the packed crowd how humbled he was to be invited.

“Brittany’s life mattered, this town matters, the people you care about and the stories represented in the room [all matter],” he told the packed crowd. “And I think all of that is a privilege, but I think the bittersweet part of it tonight is that you wish Brittany would show up.”

Tworkowski acknowledged that TWLOHA didn’t have all the answers. It’s merely a bridge to get to the point of recovery, he explained—people just need to walk it.

“I long to kiss you and hold you and never let you go,” Brittany’s mom Carrie cried to the audience. “Every night I hold and kiss her picture,” she told the teary-eyed room.

A video montage of Brittany ensued. There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Yet underlying the pain of the night was a sense of hope. There were countless hugs and smiles, too.

It was the same feelings of optimism and strength radiating from participants of the many suicide prevention walks and marches sponsored by nonprofits and organizations throughout the country—which serve both as important fundraisers for the charities, as well as powerful displays of solidarity.

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