Health: Samaritans Mark 45 Years Of Listening – And Saving Lives

By: Alan Pollock

People contemplating suicide never need be alone, thanks to the Samaritans. FILE PHOTO

‘Beacon Of Hope’ Event Set For Sept. 10

Do people have misconceptions about suicide? Stephanie Kelly, executive director of the Samaritans of Cape Cod and the Islands, can’t help but chuckle at the question.

“Probably the biggest one is that it doesn’t happen on the Cape and Islands,” she said. Thanks to social stigmas, people don’t talk about suicide, and those who do can end up feeling ostracized by friends. But in its 45 years in existence locally, Samaritans volunteers have fielded more than 600,000 calls for help. 

People tend to pass judgment on those who contemplate taking their own lives, ‘but think it would never happen in their families,” Kelly said. But suicide touches people everywhere, every day.

“Anyone, anywhere, across any economic segment or gender orientation – it affects everyone,” she said.

Another big misconception is that talking about suicide makes the problem worse. “We know that’s not true,” Kelly said. In fact, encouraging people to talk about their suicidal thoughts is the best way to help, and that’s what Samaritans call-takers do, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Now, with the new 988 nationwide suicide and crisis hotline that went live last month, the Samaritans of Cape Cod and the Islands receives those calls from a broader geographic area, and from callers in all locations whose cell phones have local area codes.

“With 988, we have grown exponentially,” Kelly said. State legislation helped organizations like the Samaritans prepare for the change by allowing them to hire staff to supplement their volunteer base. One of the key objectives of the national 988 movement is so that people contemplating suicide don’t need to call 911, where dispatchers are likely to send police or an ambulance. That’s actually very rarely needed, Kelly said.

When the Samaritans receive a call, 95 percent of the time, the caller is in distress in thinking about suicide but has no plan in place and no immediate means of killing themselves. “They need to talk with somebody and be heard,” Kelly said. At the end of the conversation, the risk has been reduced and the caller has been offered additional support options. The remaining 5 percent of callers need more help, and for most of those, it involves a three-way call with counselors from the Cape and Islands’ designated emergency services provider, Bay Cove. Only very rarely are callers in need of immediate intervention because they are at imminent risk of taking their own lives, and a call to 911 is needed. 

“It’s such a rare occurrence,” Kelly said.

Thanks to the large signs at the Sagamore and Bourne bridges, the call center is what people generally think about when they hear about the Samaritans, Kelly said. But the organization runs other programs, including a grief services program that helps friends and family members of those who commit suicide. That support is provided both as one-on-one interactions and as group programs. A pilot program underway in Falmouth has Samaritans counselors – including loss survivors – respond with police whenever there is a suicide death or the need to notify family members of a suicide.

On Sept. 10, World Suicide Prevention Day, the Samaritans will be hosting their Beacon of Hope event, which is held every five years to mark the group’s milestone anniversaries. The event will take place at the Cultural Center of Cape Cod in South Yarmouth from 5 to 7 p.m., with hors d’oeuvres, a cash bar and live music. Tickets are $45 and can be purchased at  

The guest speaker at the Beacon of Hope will be Kevin Berthia, the survivor of a suicide atempt on the Golden Gate Bridge in 2005. In a photo made famous around the world, he is pictured standing on the bridge cable, talking with California Highway Patrol Sgt. Kevin Briggs. Simply by listening to what he had to say, Briggs gave Berthia a reason to live. Both are now nationally recognized speakers on suicide prevention.

“I could not have asked for a speaker who’s more in tune with what we, as Samaritans, do,” Kelly said. “We listen. And we know that it works. We do it every day.”

If you are feeling alone and having thoughts of suicide – whether or not you are in crisis – or know someone who is, don’t remain silent. Talk to someone you can trust through the 988 Suicide andCrisis Lifeline. Call or text 988.