IN CRISIS

Support When It’s Most Needed

Suicide-attempt survivor Ann Taylor.
COURTESY OF DIDI HIRSCH
Suicide-attempt survivor Ann Taylor is now a peer facilitator of support groups for fellow survivors.
Since COVID-19 struck, distress lines have been lighting up at the nation’s oldest suicide prevention center. 

In 2014, after trying several times to take her own life, Ann Taylor, a former physical therapist and mother of two, went to a support group on Los Angeles’s Westside for survivors of suicide attempts. It was raining that day, she recalls, but she stood outside for a time, too scared to go in. Once she was inside, the facilitators at the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center asked everyone to introduce themselves and invited them to talk openly about their attempts and what they were hoping to get out of the group. “I just cried the whole time,” Taylor says. “I couldn’t speak. I was overwhelmed. It’s hard to admit that you tried to kill yourself.” Attendees were asked to rate on a scale of one to five—five being the most dire—the intensity of their suicidal intent (how committed they were to the physical act of killing themselves) and their suicidal desire (how much they wanted to die). “My desire was a five, and my intent was probably a three,” Taylor says. “So yeah, pretty high.”

When Taylor first came to Didi Hirsch, its primary operations were housed in a nondescript, beige building tucked in a residential area of Culver City. Last year, the organization’s Suicide Prevention Center moved into a three-story, 14,000-square-foot facility on a busy Westside stretch of Olympic Boulevard. An enormous azure sign with “SUICIDE PREVENTION CENTER” in big block capital letters was promptly placed outside. Upstairs, a corps of staff and volunteers answers the center’s crisis lines around the clock. Calls jumped from 100,000 in 2018 to 130,000 last year, in keeping with a similar rise across the country. “It was the biggest jump we’ve had in a long time,” says Lyn Morris, the center’s senior vice president of clinical operations. When COVID-19 struck earlier this year, coronavirus-related calls to the center’s disaster distress line—which was created to help people in crises related to man-made and natural disasters, such as mass shootings and wildfires—rose from 615 in February to 2,300 in April. Lately, nearly half of the calls to this special line have been related to the pandemic. 

In the old building, Morris says, there were cubicles for seven hotline volunteers; here, there are 28, for a rotating staff of 200. “This isn’t work that a person can do full-time, nonstop,” she says. Since the pandemic took hold, crisis counselors who do come in have been social distancing in the office; most are working remotely. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that a lot of our own staff are struggling with the same issues as our callers,” says Patricia Speelman, the division director in charge of the crisis lines. “They can’t go to work; maybe they’re concerned about a family member; they’re concerned about what their futures are going to look like.”

NO BLAME, NO SHAME

Opened in 1958, the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center is the oldest facility of its kind in the country. It’s named for Hirsch, who was a Beverly Hills philanthropist with a lasting and committed interest in mental health issues. The center is also the nation’s first provider of support groups for suicide-attempt survivors.

Meetings take place on the ground floor. Consisting of 8 to 10 members, each group gathers weekly with a trained therapist and a peer facilitator—someone who, like them, has attempted suicide before.

“There’s no blame, there’s no shame, and there’s no judgment,” says Speelman. “A lot of people wake up after having swallowed pills and are extremely angry that they survived. But it helps if they’re able to share their stories, and how they’re feeling, with nobody judging you.”

Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous were founded to help addicts come together to maintain their sobriety. Meetings expressly for family members and friends of those addicts came later. By contrast, support groups for people who have lost loved ones to suicide have been around for decades, while group programs for survivors of attempted suicide have only recently emerged, leaving many of those seeking help with a one-on-one approach that can be less than effective. “A lot of therapists don’t know how to treat survivors, and many [survivors] can’t talk to their parents,” says Morris. “There’s just no place for them to go.”

Suicide has always been difficult to talk about, even among friends and family members who may want to help the most. “People don’t want to forget their loved ones just because they died by suicide,” says Morris. “They don’t want it to be that you never talk about that person again. But unfortunately, that happens in some families because of the stigma.” Even the most well meaning can stumble. “A lot of the people who call our crisis line have tried to talk to the people in their lives, and nobody’s listening,” she says. “Or they’re saying, ‘Oh, don’t worry, tomorrow will be a better day. You’ve got all this to live for; why would you ever think of suicide?’ ”

To understand why group meetings for suicide survivors have been so long in coming, it’s instructive to look at the center’s first try at offering them over five decades ago. In the 1960s, cofounder Norman Farberow, widely considered one of the fathers of modern suicidology, formed a group to give survivors a place to discuss their experiences. His project would also provide researchers with an opportunity to learn more about the nature of suicide itself. 

Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles.COURTESY OF DIDI HIRSCH
Crisis-hotline call volume at the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center in Los Angeles has increased during the COVID-19 pandemic. “One of the things we’ve noticed is that a lot of our own staff are struggling with the same issues as our callers,” says division director Patricia Speelman.

Farberow’s plan was controversial from the start. Therapists expressed concern that the mere act of talking about suicide might trigger some attendees to try it again. They also feared that the group setting might encourage members to share ideas and tips about how to go about ending their lives. 

Survivors, for their part, worried that speaking openly about suicidal thoughts or about a recent attempt might lead to institutionalization or being hospitalized against their will—a common outcome at the time. Many believed that what they had done was a crime (for centuries, in many parts of the United States, it was) and what they had attempted an irredeemable “act against God,” as some faiths called it. Who would want to talk about such things in front of a bunch of strangers? Faced with strong resistance from the professionals and even some of the survivors themselves, the pilot program soon folded. 

Today’s support groups at Didi Hirsch, which launched in 2011, are proving much more durable. Morris credits the change, at least in part, to a lessening of the stigma against attempting suicide (the conspicuous, street-facing sign out front is a push in that direction) and increased recognition of the importance of listening to the “lived-experience community.” “It has become a little bit more prominent in the field, because more people are willing to talk about their attempts and share their stories,” Morris says. “More people are speaking out about their experiences, but they are also speaking out and saying, ‘There’s no place for us.’ ”

A DIRE NEED

For years after that first rainy-day meeting, Ann Taylor participated in support groups for suicide-attempt survivors, but now, she does so as a peer facilitator. During a session, she may talk about her personal life and her previous suicide attempts (something she’s not allowed to do when answering calls on the crisis hotline); she may acknowledge that she still “has the urges” now and again. Through her own example, she shows new members that this is a safe place to open up. “If you tell your friends that you want to kill yourself, they’re likely to call 911,” she says. “But if you say that in this group, it’s OK. You can tell them that it’s OK, that sometimes I feel like that, too.”

In the nine years since its launch, the Didi Hirsch program has served as a model for a handful of similar groups across the United States. The situation has never been more dire: since 2000, suicides in the U.S. have increased by more than 30 percent, and they’re currently the second leading cause of death for Americans under 35. The organization shares its program manual and sends out key personnel, like Morris, to do in-person training at venues from Montana to Georgia to New York as well as at sites closer to home, like the West Los Angeles VA Medical Center. Participants have reported decreased suicidal desire and intent after attending the groups as well as an increased likelihood of using a safety plan when having suicidal thoughts in the future. Even so, there are still only about a dozen groups in the country. 

With the spread of COVID-19, Didi Hirsch is taking the support groups virtual by conducting meetings via Zoom. As for the disaster distress line, managers update their staffers and volunteers on a weekly basis about how to deal with callers struggling with the effects of the pandemic. “A lot of people are feeling even more isolated than they might have been previously, because they can’t go out; they can’t connect with their support systems face-to-face,” says Speelman.

Taylor calls her work “the favorite thing I do right now.” But she’s aware that the services she provides are few and far between. Amid a growing national suicide crisis, a safe space for mutual support remains as elusive for most survivors as it was in the 1950s. “You look at groups for people who have lost someone to suicide, and there’s groups everywhere,” Taylor says. “But for us, [practically] not at all.”

If you or someone you know needs support, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

Robert Ito wrote about female playwrights transforming television for Alta, Winter 2020.

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