Night and Day with the Only 24-7 Suicide Call Center in Vermont and New Hampshire.
Edward* has called more than 210 times since April 27, 2011. He calls Sunday mornings, he calls late at night, sometimes he calls in the afternoon. He calls when he’s afraid, he calls when he’s lonely. Sometimes he calls to discuss his ex-wife, who left him six-and-a-half years ago, right before he shot himself. He shot himself in the face, but he didn't die. He blew off his lower jaw. He’s had several jaw surgeries since. Sometimes he calls to check in before he goes to the hospital. He calls when he gets home. The surgeries haven’t improved his jaw much. But Edward is alive, so he keeps calling. Someone always answers.
* * *
The first suicide call I heard at Headrest’s 24-hour hotline was one the Lebanon, New Hampshire organization would describe as “low-risk.” Jo-An Morin, the hotline coordinator, was talking to payroll on the business line. The hotline rang. Morin transitioned seamlessly. “Hotline, may I help you.” She paused to listen. “Why don’t you see if you can make an appointment for next week,” she said. “That way you can talk to somebody.” As she spoke, Morin typed the phone number retrieved by caller ID into the computer database. A zip code appeared on screen. Her voice was low and soft, scratchy but soothing. She took notes on a yellow legal pad. “Maybe it will help to write down your thoughts,” she said. “It sounds like you have a lot of things going through your head.” She nodded and listened. Another minute of silence. She hung up.
The caller had no plan or weapon, she said. “Low-risk.”
“In cases like that,” Morin said, “we gently push people toward things they would have thought of anyways, if they weren’t so upset.” The hotline’s role is both simple and profound: to remind callers that some part of them wants to stay alive.
The Headrest crisis hotline has served New England for 380,232 consecutive hours since it grew out of a group of “bad trip” counselors at a late 1960s commune in Woodstock, Vermont, called “The Hog Farm.” Its name, Headrest, was a reference to the era’s slang for heavy users. With the help of Dartmouth College’s psychiatry department, the group professionalized during the early ’70s, eventually adding an 8-bed residential facility for low-income substance abusers in recovery. Today Headrest’s trained counselors and suicideologists answer 10,000 calls a year, and the hotline, 1-800-273-TALK, averages two or three “high-risk” calls each week. “High-risk” means the callers have an immediate plan and means to end their lives. Headrest is the only 24-7 center answering the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in Vermont and New Hampshire. As far as Morin is aware, it has never lost a caller in its 43 years.
Most calls aren’t high-risk. During my first three visits, there was a man checking in for the week to maintain his spot on the waiting list for Headrest’s residential program, a grad student stressed about classes, a college junior who resented her roommate “who came from money.” One Friday, Morin was taking a cigarette break, and I was listening to the clock’s steady tick, when the phone rang. I was drawing lazy circles in my notebook and staring out the window at a cemetery.
Suddenly, Morin pushed through the office door with the phone pinned between her ear and shoulder. I slid my chair back as she grabbed for the yellow legal pad on her desk. Cigarette smoke swirled through the air.
“Have you done anything to hurt yourself now,” Morin said. Her voice was different. Gone was the soft, soothing voice from previous calls. This voice was firm and urgent.
“If you do kill yourself today, do you know how you would do it?”
Two of the residential counselors slipped quietly from the room.
“Is someone with you?”
“Does she know you’re calling?”
I flipped the page in my notebook, cringing at the sound.
“I’m not going to help you write a will,” Morin said. She sounded frustrated. “Can I speak to your mom? When she gets off the phone?”
Was it a boy or a girl? Was it serious? Was there an “immediate plan”?
“You’re asking a suicide worker for a gun,” Morin said. She began typing the phone number into the lookup database. “You’re calling a suicide prevention line.” Listening. “Okay. Okay,” she said, trying to keep the caller on the line. The caller hung up.
Without moving the phone from her ear, Morin dialed two nines and a one, her eyes fixed on the computer database. One ring and the operator answered.
Morin began explaining. Then her voice sharpened. Emergency services was asking Morin for Headrest’s address. “Do you want to know more about the caller? I need to make sure this is being handled.” Pause. “Can I speak to your supervisor?”
This was supposed to be the easy part. In a high-risk case, the Headrest staffer calls 911 and remains on the line while 911 tracks the caller’s number. But this time, when the supervisor came on the phone, Morin had to explain it all again. Finally she slammed the phone down and shook her head.
We sat in silence for a few moments.
“So, she called eighteen minutes ago,” Morin said. I felt like barely five minutes had passed, but the evidence was on the computer screen, digital numbers blinking call start and end times. “It can be very frustrating,” she said. “They don’t understand that someone is trying to kill themselves, today. Like now. Right now, while I’m explaining to them.” She paused. “And I only got one puff of my cigarette.” I nodded. “So now I have a feeling of unrest about the whole situation,” she said. “I’m going to call Wendita to debrief.” Wendita Shumacher is one of Headrest’s out-patient counselors.
She raised the phone back to her ear.
“Do you have a minute to debrief?” The words had barely left her lips before the hotline rang again. “Shoot,” she said. “I’m going to have to call you back.”
“Headrest, how can I help you?” She reverted to her soothing voice and typed the new phone number into the database as she spoke. No matches.
I gleaned bits of information—a girl, middle school, she needed to speak with her mother about something that was upsetting her. Morin suggested the girl explain her anxiety to her mother. After a few moments, she hung up and exhaled.
“Whooo. That was an easy one.”
We sat in silence for a moment, until I asked whether the high rate of callers was normal. There had been two high-risk calls before I arrived. Three today.
“No. I have no idea what’s going on.”
We laughed, but nothing was funny.
* * *
May 2, 2014; morning. A man calls and tells Morin he plans to kill himself. Does he have the means? A knife, he says, or maybe a rope. Morin persuades him to go to the hospital. But he doesn’t have a car, he says, so he’ll walk. It’ll take him about 45 minutes. He says he’ll call when he arrives. If Morin doesn’t hear from him in 45 minutes, she will call 911. 45 minutes. 47 minutes. Morin calls him. No answer. Her finger hovers over the 9. The line rings. It’s the hospital. He has arrived.
* * *
“I think I was at an advantage having my first call alone be someone in the midst of a crisis,” Morin told me.
It was 2007. The senior counselor Morin was working with had left to take a resident to an AA meeting. Morin was alone. Her first call was a woman who had already taken pills. She was losing consciousness on the phone.
“I had told myself I would never bring up religion or someone’s children as ways to convince them to stay alive,” Morin told me. “On that first call, I broke all my rules. The woman told me she had grown up Catholic, where you know, everything’s a sin. So I said, ‘You know if you commit suicide, you could go to hell.’ And I thought, ‘I can’t believe I’m saying this.’ But then as the pills kicked in and her words were slurred she gave me her address, and I was able to call 911 and get the police to her house. After, I asked my supervisor if what I’d said was okay. She said, ‘It doesn’t really matter what you say as long as it keeps them alive.’”
Morin had been working with Headrest’s residential programs for two years by then, but she’d never staffed the hotline. “I was petrified of the hotline. I’m a very visual person, so I wasn’t sure how I’d be able to get cues from people.” Morin is 39 years old, a graduate of Lebanon High with a B.S. in behavioral sciences from Granite State College. She has shoulder-length, strawberry-blond hair that fades to bleached ends, which she used to dye pink. “Let’s face it,” she says, “doing the suicide hotline can be rather dark sometimes. We can’t take ourselves too seriously.” She’s an avid reader of horror and fantasy. She volunteers with a quirky nonprofit called Random Acts, founded by an actor from the TV show Supernatural. Her eight years at Headrest are the longest she’s held one job. “I like being a little part of this huge entity.” The suicide hotline. “I thought that I wouldn’t,” she said, “but it’s actually comforting.”
* * *
Morin was training Eric Harbeck, a new hotline counselor. “The next step is you answering the phone,” Morin said. Eric nodded, pushing out his breath loudly.
“That was a look of fear.” Morin laughed. “I have no doubt that you can do it.”
Eric would observe Morin and other staffers for at least 20 hours before he’d be on his own. “It’s guaranteed that the first or second shift you’ll get something,” Morin said. “Something we haven’t talked about, but you’ll do the right thing.”
“I think I just need to convince myself that I’m talking to a buddy about a problem, and I’m helping them,” said Eric.
Morin was expecting a scheduled call from a potential counseling client, so when the phone rang, she let Eric answer.
“Hotline, may I help you?” It turned out to be someone looking for an AA meeting. Eric described several meetings near Thetford, Vermont, in a low, calm voice. He nodded as he spoke, even when he wasn’t saying yes. “Some people train faster than others,” Morin whispered to me. “I think he’s going to be a fast one.”
Morin had shown me the simulator program she uses to train new employees. It features a female avatar called Rachel, clad in a salmon-colored v-neck sweater. Sample sentences from suicidal callers materialized on the screen the screen. To each sentence there was a list of four responses, creating a mock telephone conversation.
“Are you feeling like you might commit suicide tonight?” appeared as a response. Morin selected it and Rachel demonstrated her approval with a grin and exaggerated thumbs-up gesture. “So you can say the word ‘suicide’?” I asked.
“Yes,” Morin said. “Research has actually shown that it’s freeing to the caller.” She continued through the conversation, eliciting A-OK signs and clapping from Rachel. When she selected an “incorrect” answer, Rachel hit her forehead with her hand.
“In the simulation,” Morin said, “there’s none of that urgency.”
* * *
A man calls as he’s walking through the streets of Burlington, Vermont. He says he’s holding a knife. He tells Morin he’ll slit his wrist, his throat, or maybe both. “Where are you?” she asks. “Tell me the name of the street.” After a while, he does. Morin stays on the phone even as she dials 911. She hears the police arrive. They’re yelling at the man. Drop the knife. Drop the knife. “I kept thinking,” she says, “‘Is he going to do the whole suicide-by-cop thing?’”
* * *
It was an unusually quiet Sunday morning, with an occasional interruption from a Headrest resident looking for medication, or aftershave, both controlled substances in an addiction recovery center. Morin told me about a recent call she’d received with Eliza Poli, one of 11 Headrest hotline counselors.
Poli had left an all-staff meeting to answer the handheld phone. The caller had said he had a rifle and wanted to kill himself. Morin had found the caller’s number, but he wouldn’t tell Poli where he was. A woman with a similar phone number had called earlier in the day, expressing concerns about her friend. While Poli had kept the man on the line, Morin had called this woman back. The woman had given Morin the name of her friend, which matched that of the man on the phone.
“You could tell the woman didn’t want to be involved, but also didn’t want her friend to die,” Morin said.
Poli’s line had fallen silent. She couldn’t tell if the man was still there. After a few minutes, she’d asked Morin if she should hang up. Stay on the line, said Morin. Five minutes. Ten, maybe fifteeen. Finally the man had returned to the phone. He’d said he had just cut his arm open. Morin had called 911 and gave them directions to the man’s home, passed on from his friend. Local police had gotten to him in time.
Morin remembers Poli waiting on the phone, terrified of the gun at the other end of the line. “Most of our calls aren’t like that,” Morin said, “but you have to be prepared.”
* * *
The majority of calls are low or moderate risk. Callers are stressed about school or money, angry with spouses or exes, maybe just depressed, drifting closer to the brink than they can handle alone. During these calls, hotline crisis counselors offer advice and try to help callers calm down. Many days, these are the only calls the line receives.
Friday afternoon was one of those days.
“Hotline, may I help you?” Morin said. “Okay, well, what’s going on that’s making you feel that way?” Morin began typing the number in the database. “Mhm. Okay, well, it sounds like there’s a lot going on, but I’m most concerned with you not wanting to live. Would you be willing to go to the hospital?” I strained to hear the words faintly audible through the receiver. “Nope, we don’t record calls,” Morin said. “Have you called your counselor today?” She began searching online for counselors in New Hampshire. “Mmhmm. What did your psychiatrist say?”
A group of four boys walked down the street past Headrest. Laugher wafted through the room’s window. “How about some deep breathing, or reading, or something like that?” Morin said. “Mmhmm. Okay. Well, this is one of those moments where I need you to help me.” She doodled on her legal pad, nodding. Someone walked up Headrest’s stairs. The entire house creaked.
“I can’t encourage you to do that. Have you ever tried sitting outside and observing what’s around you?” Morin listened. “Mmhmm. Well, I don’t see why they would inject you with needles.” She paused. “I believe you can leave the ER as an adult, but that’s up to you.” Listening. “You’re very welcome, I’m glad that you called.” She smiled into the phone. “I appreciate that. Bye.”
Morin turned to me and Josh, a residential counselor. “I’m supposed to tell my boss I was a great help to him.” She laughed. The caller had been upset with his girlfriend, who he’d said was “violating the law” by bringing his child across state lines. He’d had no immediate plan to commit suicide. “I think I’d classify him as low-risk,” she said. “It’s hard to explain, but you can tell a mental state by the way someone is speaking.”
She sighed and shook her head. “It’s kind of frustrating when they’re calling for help and you’re trying to help, and they’re just like, ‘Nope, nope, nope, nope, nope.’”
* * *
A 14-year-old girl calls. Eliza Poli answers. The girl tells Poli about her 18-year-old boyfriend, which requires Headrest to break confidentiality and report the information to Child Protective Services. She tells Poli about several instances of rape in her past. Three weeks ago, she says, she was “almost raped” at school. She tells Poli about sexual involvement with her brother. “I don’t want to die, but I want to cut myself,” she says. Her boyfriend has her razor blades. When she hangs up with Poli after 67 minutes, she says she no longer feels like cutting.
* * *
Joy Waters works the hotline evening shift — four days a week from 5:00 to 10:00 and on Sunday from 2:00 to 10:00. Waters is 72 years old and has answered the hotline for 14 years. Her body’s circadian rhythm doesn’t let her fall asleep until 2:00 am, so she “doesn’t do mornings.”
“We’ve had three robo calls today,” she said when I arrived on a Tuesday night. “It’s been an aggravating evening.” The hotline also receives prank calls. Sometimes Morin calls the number back. Once she went to court to testify against a prankster who “joked” that he planned to shoot himself in the head.
“We also had a frequent caller,” Waters said. It was Edward, who was having another surgery tomorrow. Edward calls so often that they’ve given him the office number. Low-risk callers can tie up the suicide line, so some frequent callers have five-minute time limits. There’s the “poltergeist” woman, who likes to call when another counselor, Caleb Kelton, works the night shift. She tells him about priests she believes to be trespassing on her property. Another woman calls when she’s drunk to discuss her daughter’s death. Another to lament the girlfriend of 29 years who left her.
Hotline staffers listen to these low-risk frequent callers for five minutes, then give them phone numbers for “warmlines,” for individuals with mental illness to speak about their problems.
“These people aren’t being punished,” Waters said. “It’s just that we can’t help them. In fact, we may be hurting them, since we’re letting them carry on about the past.”
The evening was quiet. “But right around the time I’m winding down,” Waters said, “the calls come in.” Sure enough, the phone rang 15 minutes before her shift ended at 10 p.m. A man called about his brother, who was threatening to kill himself. Waters told him she couldn’t say whether his brother had called. “You can give him this number though,” she said. “We’d love to speak with him.”
When she hung up, Waters called Morin to confirm her decision.
“You would think you’d be able to inform the family in case of a suicide, but I guess not,” Waters said. “These HIPAA laws.” The health privacy act of 1996. “They make sense, but they’re stupid in some cases. You’re dealing with people’s lives here.”
The second time I visited Waters, she was training John Roberge, a new hotline staffer who’d begin on the night shift.
“You should’ve been here yesterday,” Waters said. “It was a good day to see how we operate under pressure.”
The phone rang.
“Hi, Carla.” Silence.
“Are you feeling like you’re going to do something tonight?”
I began taking notes. Roberge pulled out a blue spiral notebook and did the same. He listened to Waters with pursed lips, a blue pen resting lightly on the bottom one.
“So you’re feeling suicidal, but you don’t have a plan right now?” Waters said. She paused. “It depends on what you say—if you say you don’t want to be here any longer, that’s different than ‘I’m going to kill myself.’” She listened. “Mmhmm. We do have a time limit,” she said. It was the woman who calls to talk about her daughter’s death. Once she called 911 to ask for a pen. The police arrested her. Waters tells her to try her therapist and says goodbye. She knows she’ll hear from Carla again.
* * *
During a lull one afternoon, I watched Morin order supplies from Staples online. Every week the hotline fills a stack of legal pads with notes from the calls. Morin added a 12-pack of lpads to her online Staples shopping cart. “I like the yellow,” she said. “It’s soft on the eyes, I think.”
Behind us, the on-duty residential counselor, Megan Hood, was chatting with Wendita Shumacher and Katie Giacometti, a residential counselor. “You need to feel it in here,” Shumacher said, pointing to her chest. She meant that when counseling clients were disrespectful or rude, you needed to respond with conviction. “You don’t want them to know what’s behind it.”
“What’s behind it is a marshmallow,” Giacometti said.
“But make them think it’s a marshmallow with crust,” said Shumacher.
* * *
The overnight shift. Morin has a stalker. The man calls eight to ten times each evening. He asks Morin on dates. He tells her about an “underground tunnel to hell.” Finally, she calls the police. They know who she’s talking about. The dispatcher has a restraining order against him. “He’s been banned from basically every hotline because he becomes fixated on the people answering.” A last resort. He’s been arrested for harassment. He still occasionally calls.
* * *
Night shift. A man and two women chatted in the residence’s kitchen. Dishes clattered in the sink. The smell of cookies wafted through the door between the office and kitchen. A sitcom, Big Bang Theory, was muted on a small television to the left of Waters’s desk. Waters unmuted it. “Ever seen this show?” We sat in silence, watching the 20-something characters struggle with a father-in-law who wanted a pre-nup. Waters played Solitaire on the computer. When the phone rang at 9:45, I was invested in the fate of the poor bride-to-be whose father had suggested a pre-nup.
“Headrest. Hi, Edward, how’s it going?” Waters said with a knowing smile. I returned the smile. Edward.
A thin man entered the office from the residential area. A maroon t-shirt peeked out from below the hem of his navy sweatshirt. He smelled like raspberry shampoo.
A counselor opened a gray metal cabinet, revealing four shelves stacked with plastic bins. She selected a bottle from a bin filled with medication and handed it to the resident.
“You getting ready for bed?” Waters said to Edward. “I hope you get some sleep.” She doodled. “You do your Rosary? Read the Bible, say your prayers?” The conversation turned to his allergies and his dogs. “Your best friend what?” she asked. “Where does he get his money?” She paused. “Mmhmm. Well I hope you get some sleep. Good luck. I’ll be thinking about you tomorrow. All right. Bye, bye.”
Another resident walked into the office. The same smell of raspberry shampoo. The counselor handed him ibuprofen. Through the door, I could hear dishes being washed, and the low hum of voices. Waters read a magazine and slowly placed orange cheese crackers onto her tongue. The TV was on, but muted again. I quietly closed my notebook, said goodbye, and headed into the dark, cool night.
* The names of callers have been changed.