A young woman sat on the Vista Bridge in Portland, Ore., this summer, legs dangling over the side of the high, arched concrete span that connects major hills across a deep ravine, a Portland landmark and a favorite spot for suicides. There is no water underneath.
But the woman's mind kept returning to a sign she had seen on the pedestrian walkway. The sign read, “Let us help you cross this bridge,” and it offered a toll-free number, 1-800-SUICIDE. The sign had been placed there by Lines for Life, Portland’s suicide prevention hotline.
Lines for Life is on the front lines of suicide prevention, the go-to call center for Oregon and a chunk of southern Washington. All calls to the national suicide hotline, 1-800-273-TALK, in that area are automatically routed to Lines of Life, as are a handful of other numbers.
Oregon is in the middle of a suicide pocket. All 10 of the worst states for suicide risk are rural Western states. Utah ranks 10th, tied with Arizona, according to the American Association of Suicidology. According to the statistics, suicide is overwhelmingly a white male problem. Rates for nonwhite males are half that of white males, and rates for women are 75 percent lower.
Last year, Lines for Life fielded 16,000 suicide risk calls and 35,000 calls total, which included calls about substance abuse and others from military vets or their families.
Despite its prominence in the suicide prevention community and strong track record, Lines for Life walks a fiscal tight rope. With funding dependent on corporate donations and local governments, the program struggles to keep its largely volunteer operation in place, especially in an era of economic stagnation and weak tax revenues.
If Lines for Life is understaffed or goes under, calls will automatically be bumped to neighboring jurisdictions, many of which are also financially stretched.
“We can’t afford to advertise our alcohol and drug or suicide lines,” said Lines for Life CEO Judy Cushing. “We are barely keeping the doors open here. So we just hope that people get the number somehow.”
Making the call
The woman on the Vista Bridge did make the call that night, and yes, operators were standing by.
A trained listener answered, and a long conversation followed. Steven Canova, the operator, finally persuaded the woman to swing her legs around and jump down to safety on the inside of the bridge. A crisis intervention team had already been called and was waiting at the end of the bridge.
“Steven literally talked and walked her off that bridge,” Cushing said.
Ten days later Conova came into Cushing's office and said he had just gotten off another call from the woman. This time, she called to say thank you. She was out of the hospital, was on her way to getting better and was going home to live with her parents.
Making a plan
"We get 16,000 calls a year. Each one is handled slightly differently," said David Westbrook, COO of Lines for Life and a pioneer in Oregon suicide prevention. “I don’t want to say most people don’t want to die. I would say that most people are ambivalent about dying.”
The objective in every call is help the caller form a real plan and then, if the caller is game, follow up with them on it, Westbrook said. The conversation may go something like this: “When we hang up here, you are going to call your Aunt Betsy who lives two miles away, and she is going to stay with you until your counseling appointment.”
Lines for Life operators are trained not to rush to find solutions. They listen patiently to the bad stuff first. They listen to reasons for dying before they suggest reasons for living.
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