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Westfield-Based Crisis Hotline Flooded with Calls After 2 Celebrity Suicides

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Ashley Bambo is the supervisor of volunteer operations and a volunteer listener at Caring Contact in Westfield. Credits: Caring Contact
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WESTFIELD, NJ — Calls came pouring in to Caring Contact Friday after people awoke to the news of celebrity chef, author and television host Anthony Bourdain’s death by suicide, according to Executive Director Janet Sarkos. Just three days before, celebrity designer Kate Spade had also died by suicide. 

 “The phones have been ringing off the hooks,” Sarkos said. Some are calling because they need help, she said, and many are calling because they are concerned for others.

Though 45,000 people died from suicide in 2016 according to the CDC, often it takes a personal connection to create awareness in people, she explained.

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“What happens with a celebrity suicide is that people feel like they know them,” Sarkos said. “A celebrity suicide feels personal.”

People often feel confused by celebrity suicides, because famous people seem to be at the pinnacle of success, she said.

In addition, “Celebrity suicides bring awareness to the issue of emotional distress, so many people take these feelings more seriously after a celebrity suicide and seek help more readily,” she added.

Caring Contact, which operates out of Westfield, is part of a network of crisis hotlines, and often calls made through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are routed to them. Caring Contact’s phones are answered by volunteers.

“In our little space in New Jersey we answered over 10,000 calls last year,” Sarkos said.  

If you or someone you know is in crisis, she said, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 800-273-8255, is available 24/7. Caring Contact, at 908-232-2880, is available 7 a.m. to 11 p.m., based on volunteer availability. All callers with emergencies should call 800-273-8255, unless a suicide is in progress, in which case they should call 911, she said.

If you’re more comfortable texting, you can text “heart” to 741-741.

When you call the national lifeline, “That call will always be answered and it will always be free,” Sarkos said. “Many people do not realize that the hotline is not only available for people in crisis, but also for those who are worried about another person. We will support the caller's desire to help someone, ask them about the signs they are seeing and give them suggestions about what to do based on the situation.”

Though talking about suicide can seem scary, volunteering and getting trained can be empowering, Sarkos said.

“Suicide is greatly reduced by increased human connection,” she said. “Every person can make a difference in the fight against suicide; all it takes is some training. It's important to get educated about the signs to look for in the people we care about. Then, once we're concerned about suicide, there are steps that anyone can learn to keep people safe.”

Silence, secrecy and shame are the biggest obstacles they face right now, she said.

“Getting comfortable with the idea that some people are in so much pain that they think about suicide is the first step,” Sarkos said. “If we can accept this concept, we will be able to provide a non-judgmental space for the people we care about to share their feelings and get help.”

Caring Contact will offer some classes this summer open to the public:

Youth Mental Health First Aid (YMHFA) is an eight-hour class being offered on July 17 and 24, 6-10 p.m. YMHFA is designed to teach parents, family members, caregivers, teachers, school staff, peers, neighbors, health and human services workers, and other caring citizens how to help an adolescent (age 12-18) who is experiencing a mental health or addictions challenge or is in crisis. Youth Mental Health First Aid is primarily designed for adults who regularly interact with young people. The course introduces common mental health challenges for youth, reviews typical adolescent development, and teaches a five-step action plan for how to help young people in both crisis and non-crisis situations. Topics covered include anxiety, depression, substance use, disorders in which psychosis may occur, disruptive behavior disorders (including AD/HD), and eating disorders.

Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) is a 16-hour, two-day interactive workshop in suicide first aid being offered on July 10-11 from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. at Caldwell University in Caldwell New Jersey. ASIST teaches participants to recognize when someone may have thoughts of suicide and work with them to create a plan that will support their immediate safety. Although ASIST is widely used by healthcare providers, participants don't need any formal training to attend the workshop — anyone 16 or older can learn and use the ASIST model.

Caring Contact also offers a two-hour Suicide Awareness and Intervention program and a two-hour Teens Helping Teens to the community several times each year and also privately to organizations. 

Want to get involved? Caring Contact trains volunteers twice each year, in the spring and the fall. The next volunteer class will begin on Sep. 12 and run through Dec. 12. Classes are generally held on Wednesday evenings. Those interested can call me at 908-301-1899, or go directly to their volunteer application at https://caringcontact.org/volunteer-listener-application/

To find out more about about how you can volunteer or bring training to your organization, call Sarkos at 908-301-1899 or email janet.sarkos@caringcontact.org.

Learn more at CaringContact.org.

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