Heather Reed was in her mid-30s when she swallowed too many pills. It was her first of several suicide attempts years ago.
“I was feeling very lost in the world,” the Columbus woman said. Her issues then felt insurmountable. Today, when she courageously stands in front of others and shares her story, she urges, “Don’t do something permanent over a situation that is temporary.”
Peggy Adams of New Hope lost her 23-year-old son to suicide. And a sister. And a former husband. And two cousins. Through no choice of her own, Adams knows far more than she wishes about navigating loss. It gives her unique empathy when answering a helpline call from someone in distress.
Reed and Adams are part of the Contact Helpline family of volunteers and staff marking September as Suicide Prevention Awareness Month. With events including a virtual race, the start of a new volunteer training class and a support group formed, they are in the middle of a 30-Day Challenge to sharpen focus on suicide prevention.
Suicidal thoughts can affect anyone regardless age, gender or background. In 2018, there were an estimated 1.4 million suicide attempts in the U.S. and more than 48,300 deaths by suicide, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, based on Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data.
Locally, Contact Helpline Executive Director Katrina Sunivelle has watched calls increase during the months-long COVID-19 pandemic. Calls to the suicide hotline in May, June and July more than doubled from the same period last year.
“In May, we had 28 suicide calls, in June 50 and in July 47,” Sunivelle told The Dispatch. Crisis calls, as opposed to suicide calls, were also up, totaling 723 for the same period. Crisis calls may be from people under stress, possibly experiencing depression or isolation. They are calls the Contact family never wants to see escalate to actual contemplations of suicide.
“We listen with our hearts, encouraging each one to share their feelings and their concerns,” said Sunivelle. “We give them that opportunity in a nonjudgmental, confidential environment. People are suffering more and we want to be sure they have a safe place to call, and we offer other services.”
Adams went through volunteer training about three years ago and has provided a listening ear at all hours of the day and night since then. Some calls she answers are from young people, often bullied at school or at home.
“They just feel alone. … We try to talk to the caller, get them on a plan where they can take it step by step, get counseling if they want it — talk to them until they get on that plateau, until they make a plan of what to do first.”
The mission requires a caring heart. And at the end of a shift, “You just have to come home and pray for them, that they will find peace,” said Adams.” We cannot go and meet them, we cannot have any contact with them — but we can pray for them.”
Reed wishes she’d known about Contact Helpline when she was at her lowest. Through faith, church and support of family and friends, she was able to face her personal challenges and pursue her education. She learned of Contact when Sunivelle came to speak to nursing students at East Mississippi Community College about two and a half years ago.
“Everything she was trying to teach just really hit home with me. It made me want to be more involved,” said Reed, who now helps coordinate Contact events. She is also a willing speaker.
“I try to give my story hoping to touch lives. I was very fortunate; I think God put people in my life at various points that helped me,” she said. “I want people to know you don’t have to make these extreme decisions; there is a place to turn to,” she said.
Contact’s Survivors of Suicide Support Group: A Safe Place to Share (SOS) was only able to meet twice in 2020 before the global pandemic descended. Oct. 13 will see its return — online via Zoom, for now.
SOS provides an open, confidential space where adult participants are free to share, or simply listen. SOS also shares tools and community resources to help survivors move forward.
“It’s hard to talk about suicide,” said Sunivelle. “This group is a safe opportunity to talk about the experiences you’ve had, with people that can relate to you. Or you can just be there quietly and listen. You are not forced to talk.”
To learn more or to sign up, call 662-327-2968 or go to contacthelplinegtrms.org. Click on ‘Save a Life’ and register through the volunteer tab. Put Survivors of Suicide Support Group: A Safe Place to Share in the message area.
Virtual race, ‘Save Just One’
As with most nonprofits, COVID-19 made it impossible for Contact, a United Way agency, to hold some of its normal fundraisers that help the agency continue providing its free services. In addition to suicide and crisis intervention phone lines, those also include Reassurance Program phone calls to an average of 348 seniors and disabled individuals daily in an eight-county area, plus community resource referrals and coordination.
Led by Sunivelle and its board of directors, Contact Helpline is busy in numerous other ways, too, from collecting and distributing school supplies to delivering blankets, scarves, socks and toiletries to Reassurance clients.
On Saturday, Contact held a 5K run and memory walk at the Columbus Soccer Complex — but the “race” continues virtually through Sept. 30.
What is a virtual race? It can be running, jogging, walking, biking or treadmilling at any location you choose, explained Sunivelle.
“You complete it at your own pace and time it yourself,” the director said. Register at Contact’s site to receive a T-shirt. Share race photos and results with the agency on its social media.
“Save Just One” is another element of the 30-Day Challenge.
“Make a personal pledge to ‘Save Just One’ with a small donation of only $10,” Sunivelle said.
Donations may be made online at contacthelplinegtrms.org, or mailed to Contact Helpline, P.O. Box 1304, Columbus, MS 39703.
Both Adams and Reed, like the rest of the Contact family, know the power of connection.
“If you know of someone having trouble, showing a pattern of doing things differently, having a change in lifestyle, talk to them, don’t ignore them,” Adams said. To anyone feeling acutely depressed, she encouraged, “There’s always somebody out there to talk to. Call a church and talk to a preacher. If you’re in school, go to the school counselor.”
And there is always Contact, where a listening ear and heart can make a difference.
Editor’s note: The National Suicide Prevention Helpline is 1-800-273-TALK (8255). The Contact Crisis Line is 662-328-0200.