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Clearing up misconceptions when calling a suicide hotline

988 operators sit in the call-in center at Gryphon Place.
Jodi Miesen
988 operators sit in the call-in center at Gryphon Place.

Kalamazoo’s Gryphon Place handles most local calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline. Crises operators want to dispel caller misconceptions.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline updated its number to a three-digit code last month. The new number, 988, is similar to 911, but for mental health emergencies.

The move was meant to make it easier to remember and to help reduce stigma by normalizing a mental health crisis.

Fielding many of those calls for Kalamazoo are crisis operators at Gryphon Place. The organization is a crisis hub for Kalamazoo County, taking calls not only for 988 but for 211, an information and referral line as well as for other entities in the area. Operators at the crisis center hope the changes will help improve mental health awareness and dispel some of the misconceptions about the lifeline.

Susanna Rickman, the crisis program manager at Gryphon Place, said the purpose of 988 is to be more pro-active, instead of reactive, helping people before they reach their breaking point.

“We are not here to call rescue. We don’t. That’s not our goal. Our goal is to get you to a stable place and for rescue not to be needed,” said Rickman.

Rickman clarified the only exception to that rule.

“Are there times when we do have to initiate rescue? There are. We’ll have times where people will call, and they are actively in an overdose. They're going in and out of consciousness. Yes, we call rescue for that,” Rickman said. “If you call up and you say I'm thinking about taking these pills. We're not going to call rescue on you. We're going to talk to you.”

So, what can you expect when you call 988?

“Lifeline. This is Primo, how may I help you?”

Crisis manager Johnny Hazard trains operators like Primo, who are on stand-by 24/7.

“I've heard, you know, callers would say, ‘Hey, I'm not suicidal. Is it? Okay, if I still talk for a while?’ Yeah, that's definitely part of what we're here for. If it's a crisis to you, it's a crisis to us,” said Hazard.

“You absolutely do not have to be at the end of your rope to call or actively suicidal. One thing that you know, we think aids in preventing suicide is the chance to talk about it before it gets that bad,” Hazard added.

Longtime crisis operator, Nikki Elise has worked at the crisis center for over three and a half years. She says calls run the gamut, from concerned friends or family members to people in active crises themselves.

“You will have somebody laughing and joking with you. That could be like almost actively holding pills or something. You could have people that are hysterical, it just everybody processes that differently,” said Elise.

She said suicide impacts us all. Even the operators of Gryphon Place are not immune.

“I think most of us were impacted by mental health or suicide in some way,” said Elise, who lost three close people by suicide in the span of six weeks.

“It broke my heart that they didn't reach out, knowing what I do. But when people get to that point, they're not reaching out.”

Rickman, the crises manager, lost her brother to suicide before she worked at Gryphon Place. Even though Rickman’s brother died before she came to the crises center, she is still left wondering.

“There's definite times when I say, if I would have known what I've seen what I could have, you know, you can think back 100 times over’” said Rickman. “I probably wouldn't have seen the signs. I was too close to it. But you never know.”

Rickman reminds callers and the staff that everything is temporary. There are always options.

“First thing I teach our trainees is ask them, do you want to die or is that the only out you see? Because there's a big difference there. A lot of times, it's that that I don't see any getting any better. Okay, so what can we do to help it so that it gets better.”

Walking people through their darkest moments can take a toll on operators said Elise.

“It’s really hard, especially if you have a lot of empathy,” said Elise, “but you know, after the call, you debrief with somebody. You do some self-care every night... but also in between each call, you know, shake it off. Do something that fills up your cup.”

In most cases, the operators at Gryphon Place don’t know what happened to the person who called, but every once in a while, they do.

“We have had a number of people that have called back and said, ‘Oh my goodness, thank you! You saved my life. I’m so much better now. I’ve gotten help. You know, I’m in a better place,’” said Elise.

If you or someone you know is struggling, Gryphon Place encourages you to call 988. Callers can use a fictious name to remain anonymous if that makes them more comfortable.

The old hotline number, 1-800-273-TALK, isn’t disconnected. It still works, at least for now.