Ten years ago, Donna Lynch was desperate.
Suffering from bipolar disorder and other psychological ailments, she spread her many medications out on the table and prepared to swallow them all. She was on the verge of ending her bottomless despair.
"But some small part of me said, just call and reach out for help."
She dialed Charleston's suicide hot line and reached a man who, for more than an hour, refused to hang up until he elicited from Lynch a promise to seek more help.
It worked, but it wouldn't be the last time Lynch called the hot line. In 2001, she left her husband and relocated to Virginia where she had family. It was a cold winter. Her brother had been diagnosed with leukemia. She did not want to burden her mother.
"I was having lots of bad thoughts," she said.
So she called the Charleston hot line again. The man on the other end of the line told her something she could not really process at the time: That this trauma would strengthen her, that one day she would be in a position to help others.
Lynch is one of thousands who have been helped by hot-line services over the years. And recent studies suggest that such telephone intervention is an indispensable component of any social program that aims to reduce suicides. The American Association of Suicidology in 2007 published the results of an assessment of crisis hot-line outcomes, finding that "seriously suicidal individuals reached out to telephone crisis services" and "significant decreases in suicidality were found during the course of the telephone session, with continuing decreases in hopelessness and psychological pain in the following weeks."
Charleston's hot line was established in 1971, the result of a grassroots effort to offer telephone assistance to those in need, according to Charlotte Anderson, vice president of 2-1-1 Services for Trident United Way. "At the time, there weren't many such resources," she said.
Seven years ago today, operation of the hot line was assumed by Trident United Way, which had submitted an application to the State Budget and Control Board for use of the federally designated 2-1-1 number. The hot line became a round-the-clock community resource that offered much more than suicide intervention.
The top calls include utility- bill-payment assistance, rent-payment assistance, emergency food and shelter referrals and legal counseling, according to Trident United Way. Hot line staff also provide information about taxes, the H1N1 virus, wild fires and many other issues, Anderson said.
Since 2003, those at the hot line have fielded 348,000 calls, 5 percent of which have some level of suicide risk, she said.
The operation employs up to 75 unpaid volunteers, 12 part-time staff and five full-time administrators and service coordinators, she said. The "blended" center, which combines intervention and information services, and which is affiliated with the National Suicide Hotline, typically refers callers to a variety of local agencies that specialize in targeted aid.
By combining crisis response with community management, 2-1-1 staff can be more efficient in providing help or connecting callers to social services, Anderson said. "It's important when you're on the phone to have that range of skills," she said. Sometimes suicide risk is heightened by economic circumstances. "We want to make sure we're listening for that risk, for cues."
John Boyle, community resources coordinator for 2-1-1 Services, said hot-line volume has grown significantly almost every year since the service was assumed by Trident United Way.
In 2002, the last year of the old hot line, about 15,000 calls were received. In 2003, annual call volume rose to 29,000, Boyle said. By 2009, annual call volume hovered around 50,000. Overall growth in call volume since 2003 has been about 65 percent, he said.
Approximately 2,500 of the calls received last year included some degree of suicide risk.
During Lynch's darkest days, she often ran into obstacles that exacerbated her condition.
"The only thing I ever wanted to be in my life was a mother," she said. But she was dissuaded by medical professionals who warned against that because mental illness that could be inherited, Lynch said. She also was encouraged to stay in an unhappy relationship. Better that than the uncertainty of independence.
"Wow," she thought at the time, "these are all the things I can't do."
In the years since Lynch used the hot-line service her outlook has improved. She replaced the huge cocktail of drugs she once ingested with a simpler formula of just two pills, one for anxiety and one for depression. She abandoned an unhappy marriage and found a job with the Berkeley Community Health Center, where she once was a patient. She lost much of the weight she had gained since her diagnosis in 1995. And she enrolled at Trident Technical College, where she is working on an associate degree in human services.
"I plan to get a master's in counseling and become a licensed private therapist," Lynch said.
And so the man on the phone who once convinced her to step back from the abyss was right after all, for Lynch now is in a position to help others.
Reach Adam Parker at 937-5902 or email@example.com.