While more Americans die by suicide than homicide or HIV/AIDS, shame, stigma, and a conspiracy of silence has surrounded the victims of self-harm and suicide. As a result, little public attention is give this tragedy except to glorify gruesome suicide deaths and for the last half-century there has been a lack of political will to marshal resources to save lives – despite the fact that nine out of every 10 suicides can be prevented.
The tide is beginning to change in the wake of the Surgeon General’s July “Call to Action to Prevent Suicide” declaring self violence a major public health crisis for the nation. Long before his announcement, however, grassroots, volunteer-led organizations such as The Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, Inc., have been at the forefront of community efforts to heighten public awareness of suicide and galvanize support for action.
Founded in 1980, by a local schoolteacher whose 15-year-old son hanged himself and two other teachers. The Samaritans have engaged nearly 600 people ages 16 to 85 years from more than 30 communities to volunteer on the agency’s 24-hour crisis hotlines, the Teen Line, to provide crisis support for schools following a suicide, assist with education programs for elder centers, communities of faith, youth programs, schools, and colleges. They also assist with the agency’s Mental Health Education and Screening Program in efforts to help identify teens and adults who suffer with depression, anxiety disorders, and eating disorders. For 19 consecutive years, volunteers have organized and facilitated support groups twice a month for families, friends, and partners who have lost someone to suicide.
During these 20 years of volunteer service, Samaritan Befrienders have staffed nine crisis lines 24 hours a day, 365 days a year without a break in service – the only volunteer crisis center in Massachusetts to achieve unbroken service.
Volunteers are not only required to successfully complete an intensive 50-hour training program, but also commit to one 5-hour shift a week and one 9-hour overnight shift monthly. Most volunteers continue their commitment beyond the one year required time and many have volunteered for more than five years.
Each year, approximately 40 teens are engaged in staffing the Teen line and another 40 adults staff the hotlines, responding to more than 40,000 calls annually. With only three paid staff, the agency could not exist without trained volunteer Befrienders who contribute nearly 19,000 hours of service annually at a value of more than $200,000. Each year, volunteers save an untold number of lives of young people and adults in unbearable psychological pain – who do not want to die, but only want the pain to stop –comfort the lonely, and are present for human beings’ despair.