Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Suicide, 2-1-1 and Me

Suicide and I are old friends! I guess “friends” isn’t the right word to use, so I’ll just say we are “acquaintances” instead. And, throughout my thirty-six year career in law enforcement I unfortunately have had to renew this acquaintance all too often. I was even a homicide detective for four years and I routinely saw the raw ugliness and horror that successful suicides often leave behind them. When some desperate and pathetic soul puts the barrel of a shotgun in their mouth and pulls the trigger there is no way to adequately describe what that horrible scene looks like, nor do I want to. Let me just say it is a sight I will never forget and I can’t imagine the pain, suffering and the total feeling of helplessness a family experiences when confronted with such an obscene discovery.

Not all of the suicidal encounters I’ve been involved in have been so gruesome. And, like most police officers in America
, who want to save lives if they can, I’ve even been able to play a role in salvaging a few of these potential victims. Once, when I was a homicide detective, I tried to wrestle a loaded automatic from a young lady who was high on valium and alcohol. She wanted to end it all and she had already fired some bullets into her bedroom walls and ceiling. During the brief but desperate struggle for the gun it suddenly discharged and the bullet hit my sergeant who was also involved in the struggle. I ended up with the gun and my sergeant ended up on the floor, writhing in agony. The bullet, thank God, hit him in the leg and he would survive. So would the shooter and instead of being charged with a crime she was taken to a local mental health care facility. I’ve always been proud of the fact that my sergeant and I were named police officers of the month because of this incident, but I was also very sorry he had to be wounded in the process.

Later in my career, when I was assigned back to the Patrol Division in uniform, I had other close encounters with suicidal individuals. Once, without even thinking about what I was doing, I rushed into the path of a charging tractor trailer truck that was headed westbound on busy State Road #84, in southwest Ft. Lauderdale. A young lady wanted to end her life and she decided that stepping in front of a truck would be a quick and a sure way to accomplish this. She was almost right. After I grabbed her arm and pulled her away from the front of the speeding truck, and then somehow managed to elude this huge metal monster myself, by only a few inches, I started to shake uncontrollably as I suddenly realized just how close to death I had actually come - again!

Another time, I kneeled down a few feet away from a teenager who was sitting on the floor with his back against a wall, and who threatened to kill himself with the large kitchen knife he was holding to his own throat. Unlike the two girls that I've previously mentioned, who were both white, this lad was black. The ugly demon called suicide doesn't give a damn about race, age, gender, sexual orientation or social status. As his worried family quietly stood nearby, hoping that we could convince him to put the knife down, I tried my best to reason with him. To be honest, even though I know the topic of suicide did get mentioned during my initial training at the police academy, I really wasn't totally prepared to handle such a unique and stressful situation. I did my best, and like the family, I hoped things would work out for the best. Eventually, when it seemed that we weren't making any real progress, I lunged at the youth and took the knife away from him. In hindsight, I don't think that he really wanted to die and he was probably relieved, like I was, when the incident was finally over. Again, he was taken to a mental health care facility for evaluation and treatment.

everal years after I retired from law enforcement I decided to do some volunteer work in my own community. I saw an article in my local Tallahassee newspaper about an organization called 2-1-1 Big Bend. I’m sure almost everyone knows that when you dial 9-1-1 you get emergency help, fast! And, 4-1-1, of course, is directory assistance. Heck, Florida even has a 5-1-1 which is a statewide Travel Information System. But, I wondered, what exactly was 2-1-1? My last ten years in law enforcement was as a captain with Florida’s Department of Insurance (Division of Insurance Fraud), so I was no longer involved as a “first responder” and I really hadn’t heard that much about 2-1-1. As of June 2007, approximately 65% of the U.S. population (198 million Americans) were being served by 2-1-1, so I imagine many other people just like me are not that familiar with 2-1-1. It seems to be one of America’s best kept secrets, but hopefully this will change soon. By the end of 2008 it is estimated (hoped) that 80% of the U.S. population will have access to 2-1-1.

I'm almost positive that all of the different 2-1-1 organizations across America operate pretty much the same way. But, I'll still just discuss my own 2-1-1 Big Bend because that is the 2-1-1 I know the most about. Among other things, 2-1-1 Big Bend is the crisis hotline for the north Florida/Big Bend area. The newspaper article I read indicated they were always looking for new volunteers to be crisis counselors for their hotlines. The training was extensive and the only requirement was that you faithfully attended all of the training sessions and you committed to doing 200 hours or one (1) year of volunteer work after your training was completed.

uring my long police career I’ve had more training, reference all sorts of different topics and issues, than I even care to remember. Yet, I can truthfully say that the training I received to become a phone counselor with 2-1-1 was some of the best, if not the best, training I have ever received. It was very detailed and it involved lots of role-playing. I’m sure the thought of role-playing in front of others might turn some would-be volunteers off, but to be honest, it was very informative and helpful, and it was even kind of fun too.

Even with all
of my past experience, training and job knowledge, becoming a good telephone counselor became a definite challenge for me. I quickly found that I needed to change the overall way I viewed and sometimes even interacted with people. One of the very first things the 2-1-1 training covered was the need for a phone counselor to be able to empathize with a caller. Could I put myself in the caller's place and imagine what they were feeling? Police officers, unfortunately, sometimes develop a hard outer shell and they purposely condition themselves not to become emotionally involved with the many different people they encounter. This defense mechanism is what often keeps an officer from losing his sanity as he/she deals with the cruelty and unhappiness they often see. Could I empathize? I didn't know.

counselors are also required to be non-judgmental when they talk with the people that call in. Non-judgmental? I’d spent my entire law enforcement career making judgments and now 2-1-1 wanted me to turn this trait off completely. They also don’t want their counselors to come across as being authoritative. Again, being a cop is one of the most authoritative jobs there is. If you’re not authoritative then there’s a real good chance you might not survive. As a cop you need to take charge of situations and be in control, but now 2-1-1 wanted me to turn this trait off too. Phone counselors are also requested not to give callers advice and/or suggestions. The 2-1-1 philosophy is to empower the individual callers to come up with their own solutions, if possible. I admit, these challenges made me wonder just how successful I would be as a 2-1-1 phone counselor. I’ve been with 2-1-1 Big Bend for several years now, and I fulfilled my 200-hour commitment long ago. In fact, before this year is out I may even reach 500 volunteer hours, which is not that far away.

2-1-1 Big Bend
is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology and it is a member of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Even though there are areas of America without their own crisis hotlines, people can still dial 1-800-273-TALK (8255) and they will be connected to the crisis center that is nearest to them.

Because 2-1-1 handles the Suicide Hotline for the north Florida/Big Bend area, the suicide related training they give their telephone counselors is extensive. All the things I wish I had known before, when I was face-to-face with that young boy who threatened to kill himself with a knife, now I learned these
things after my law enforcement career was finally over. I only wish I had this valuable training before I became a police officer. I think it would have made me a better officer, and probably a much better human being too.

any of the calls we get at 2-1-1 are very routine in nature, and occasionally a caller probably intends to get 4-1-1, instead of 2-1-1. In addition to counseling people who are in crisis, 2-1-1 counselors give out all sorts of referrals, ranging from A to Z. Some people call because they need help paying this month’s utility bill. Some need shelter, some need support groups and the list of referrals 2-1-1 gives out is almost endless. And, in any one 24-hour period, 2-1-1 Big Bend will get approximately one (1) call reference an individual thinking about and/or threatening suicide. This might be a first-party type call, from the person themselves; or a second-party type call from a concerned friend or family member.

A couple of nights ago I worked a three-hour volunteer shift at 2-1-1. It was unusually quiet and I didn't have a call all evening, not until "Dave" called. Dave is not, of course, his real name. 2-1-1 takes the
confidentiality of their caller's information very seriously and that's why I can't go into any great or descriptive detail. But, Dave said that he wanted to die and he saw no other way out. I talked with him for almost forty-five minutes and again, without going into detail, the call was concluded in a positive manner and Dave got the help he so desperately needed. A successful call like this one always makes me feel so good inside, because I know I've been able to help someone who really needed it. And, I didn't have to jump in front of a speeding truck, or wrestle a gun or a knife away from someone, to do it. When I think back on all the gruesome and bloody suicide investigations I've been involved in during my career, it is such a rewarding experience to be able to intercede before things get so bad that the only thing the police can do is to call for the medical examiner.

I would suggest that anyone thinking of pursuing a career in law enforcement might want to seriously consider volunteering with their local 2-1-1 first. The training will be invaluable to them and being able to mention 2-1-1 as a reference on their resume won't look that bad either.

Author of book: Badge 149 - "Shots Fired!"
My book's web site:

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