In retrospect, it’s not surprising that volunteer-manned suicide hotlines are plagued by scary levels of incompetence:
The person manning the suicide hot line should have asked a follow-up question about the gun. Yes, the caller had said, he was despondent, and, yes, he mentioned he had considered using a gun to end his life. But that’s where that line of conversation ended – until the phone receiver exploded with the sound of a gunshot.
The caller had a rifle with a string tied to the trigger, rigged to point at his head. The bullet went wide, sparing the man, but a question or two more from the crisis-center representative – such as, do you have a gun with you now? – might have changed the course of events.
The journal Suicide and Life-Threatening Behavior has published a remarkable series of articles on the effectiveness of suicide hot lines, opening a window into the world of desperate people and the volunteers who try to help them get through the night. Two of the unprecedented studies involved eavesdropping on suicide hot-line calls – in which the researchers heard things like that terrifying rifle shot – and two main conclusions came out of the work: One, many crisis-line callers are indeed in suicidal distress (and not just lonely or sad) and they are helped by talking to an empathetic fellow human being. And two, the call centers fail, with alarming regularity, to ask some very basic questions: Are you suicidal? Do you have a plan? Do you have the tools at hand to carry it off? Are you alone and drinking? …
In 723 of 1,431 calls, for example, the helper never got around to asking whether the caller was feeling suicidal.
And when suicidal thoughts were identified, the helpers asked about available means less than half the time. There were more egregious lapses, too: in 72 cases a caller was actually put on hold until he or she hung up. Seventy-six times the helper screamed at, or was rude to, the caller. Four were told they might as well kill themselves. (In one such case, the caller had admitted to compulsively molesting a child.)
There were 33 evident on-line suicide attempts, yet only six rescue efforts, sometimes because the caller ended the communication. In one case, a caller who’d overdosed passed out, yet the helper hung up.
I guess the suicidally depressed could try calling again, in the hopes of hitting on one of the better volunteers. (Apparently, they do exist.) That’s probably not going to happen though, horribly enough.