Who do people call if they are contemplating suicide in Shasta County? The first answer is 911. That operator will determine where they are, send an officer, or, if they have already made the attempt, the operator will send medical personnel.
Shasta County Mental Health tells those struggling with suicide to either call 911, 1-800-273-TALK, or Helpline at 530-244-2222. And it has a crisis stabilization line that operates 24 hours a day. That number is 225-5252.
If people want to talk about suicide, they might be best served by calling a volunteer at Helpline, but this local nonprofit is only able to keep its phones open 12 hours a day, from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
One benefit of Helpline is that calls are strictly confidential. It is a “nonreporting” service. No matter what the caller says, Helpline does not call law enforcement. Further, the line is what Steve Smith, the executive director since 2005, calls a “warm line.” People can and do call just to talk to someone from this area, someone who has gone through five weeks of training in how to listen, be understanding and nonjudgmental.
Hayley Huttenmaier has been a Helpline volunteer since 2007. She says people call for all kinds of reasons, many of them just needing someone to talk to about relationship issues, panic attacks, depression, eviction notices, or whether to terminate a pregnancy.
“It’s rare to have someone call who is suicidal,” she said.
At the moment, Helpline has 14 volunteers, working three shifts a day, seven days a week. But it isn’t able to fill all the slots. Sometimes, the phone isn’t staffed. For instance, on Thursday, June 28, no one was on shift. There were nine, four-hour, open slots that week.
The lack of staff places Helpline in a Catch-22 position. Because there aren’t sufficient volunteers, people who call can either leave a message or just hang up, Huttenmaier said.
Some of the callers give up and don’t call back. So, when the operators are in the tiny, donated office, there might not be any calls. Because of that, they might get bored and wonder why they are hanging around. One volunteer recently quit.
“We desperately need volunteers,” Huttenmaier said.
Before July 1, 2009, Helpline was funded by the county and answered calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The county pulled its funding, and Helpline went out of business. Smith, who had been a volunteer, talked the Helpline board of directors into a smaller operation, obtaining grants from Mercy Medical Center and Shasta Regional Medical Center totaling $5,000 a year—enough to pay the phone, insurance, and incidentals. Helpline opened up again on a limited basis.
Before 2009, Helpline operators received up to 12,000 calls a year, about 35 percent of which were for mental health and other issues. Now they receive about 150 calls a month, Smith said. Half of them are repeat callers. Helpline covers Shasta County but will take calls from anywhere, including someone who calls regularly from North Carolina.
“We don’t care what religion you are, whether you are a criminal or a saint, an abuser or a druggie,” Smith said. “We don’t give out any information or call the police.”
Helpline volunteers have no interaction with callers except on the phone—they are not allowed to meet callers. Neither Smith, nor any of the volunteers, receives any monetary compensation.
Why do people call Helpline?
“The overwhelming thing that people have is hopelessness,” Smith said. People contemplate suicide when they “perceive something as an insurmountable obstacle.” Everyone’s perceptions are different—and valid. Helpline volunteers don’t try to talk people out of their perceptions, or give them advice.
“We try to give them options, try to make them take responsibility,” Smith said. “Most people who call us don’t really want to do it.”
Helpline is offering a five-week training class for volunteers on Tuesday and Thursday evenings from Sept. 11 through Oct. 11. The class will include background information, guest speakers on a variety of issues, and training on helping communication skills. Volunteers at Help, Inc. typically work one four-hour shift per week between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m., any day of the week. If you are non-judgmental, understanding, and a good listener, please consider volunteering. To register, leave your name and number at (530) 244-2211, or email firstname.lastname@example.org, and someone will contact you.
Bill Siemer grew up on a farm in Lassen County, played basketball at Shasta JC, went to Vietnam, became a newspaper reporter and then a lawyer and now considers himself a champion of the story that needs to be told. He lives on the bank of the river and takes pictures.