Oregonian ran this editorial in its Sunday edition…
When there’s no one else to talk to, troubled people talk to the volunteers and staffers answering the phones at the Oregon Partnership’s crisis lines. And this year, as the economy has collapsed, they’re calling in greater numbers than ever.
People contemplating killing themselves. Kids dealing with the shame of being abused. Adults dealing with vulnerable parents, or with their children who are taking drugs. People who have no job, no health insurance and little money, but who are desperate for therapy, medication or just a little encouragement.
They are all around us. They are young, old, male, female, military veterans and working mothers. And from the numbers compiled by the Oregon Partnership, the nonprofit organization that operates the lines, they are dialing in at more than twice the rate they did last year. Layoffs, furloughs and salary cuts have put more households in crisis — to the point at which desperation drives a person to call an anonymous person at the other end of a crisis line.
Further, the crises have become more severe. In a typical month last year, the crisis line responders at Oregon Partnership might have had only a couple of “rescues” — cases in which they stayed on the line with callers after summoning emergency help. Last month, there were 19. One staffer had two in one day this week.
Yet even this last line of defense against despair is struggling to stay alive. The biggest piece of the nonprofit’s budget is money granted by the state, and it is very much in jeopardy this year.
The governor’s budget included $650,000 for the Oregon Partnership’s crisis line services for the next biennium, but that amount isn’t in the budgets under consideration in Salem. Without it, says Oregon Partnership president Judy Cushing, “I don’t know how we’ll continue. That’s not a threat: I just don’t know how we’ll continue.”
If there is a heart pulsing behind the political standoffs and the dreadful budget-cutting the Legislature has undertaken this session, there will be a little money allocated to the Oregon Partnership to keep its crisis lines operating for another two years. Without it, the partnership won’t be able to keep up with the rising demand for its services.
As it is, the nonprofit leans heavily on its corps of volunteers — about 70 people who donate four or more hours a week to answer the phones. The volunteers and just six staffers, two of them full time, keep the crisis lines running 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In many parts of the state, it is the only crisis line that operates around the clock. To keep up with demand, the nonprofit would like to add another few phone lines and a staffer or two.
The volunteers, too, come from many walks of life. One is Lon Getlin, the CEO of a Portland-based consumer products company. He serves on the board, and he also answers when the crisis line rings. “We get the most incredible telephone calls you can possibly imagine,” he said. He took one from a young teenager who was so intimidated by the idea of returning to school after a summer in which her mother committed suicide that she, too, was thinking of killing herself.
“She was emotional and steady, which is a very scary combination,” Getlin remembered. But after talking to Getlin for a time, and then having follow-up phone calls from crisis line staffers, the girl decided to return to school. The last time volunteers talked to her, she was doing much better.
The story of that teenage girl could have been just one more tragedy in a state that’s seen some horrific ones lately — children thrown from a bridge, others shot by their father and an unborn infant cut from his mother’s womb. If only the killers in those cases had called the crisis line, as the young teenager had the courage to do, perhaps the innocent wouldn’t have died.
Such outcomes are unknowable, but one thing is predictable: Let the crisis line go dark, and there will surely be more tragedies.
The Oregon Partnership operates four crisis lines that have seen increased traffic without any marketing, except for ads in the Yellow Pages.
HelpLine, a general crisis line for adults: 1-800-923-HELP
LifeLine, a board-certified suicide crisis line: 1-800-SUICIDE and 1-800-273-TALK
YouthLine, a part-time crisis line staffed by teenagers: 1-877-553-TEEN
Linea de Ayuda, a part-time, Spanish-language crisis line: 1-877-515-7848
Calls are up sharply this year. During the first four months of 2008, the crisis lines logged 2,299 calls. During the first four months this year, they received 5,849, a 154 percent increase.