Garrett Fenton, a 40-year-old Navy vet and a crisis line responder, once took a call from a veteran who had lost his job, his wife and his home and felt he had nothing to live for. Sensing he was serious about killing himself, Fenton and another staffer worked with the cellphone provider and police in California and Florida to track down the caller, who had refused to identify himself. Police finally arrived at his house, 30 minutes too late: He had already taken his life.
"Sometimes these calls do not have a happy ending,'' said Fenton, who sports a bushy black beard. He and others stress that a suicide decision is not in their hands; it is a decision only the veteran can make. But still, every suicide stings.
"The truth is,'' Fenton said, "we fell short and death won out."
The preferred outcome is to listen hard to the caller, and gradually edge the conversation around to positives and solutions. Crisis line responders draw callers out of their immediate emergency and make sure they are safe, then guide them to the wide range of services now offered at their nearest VA center to help with substance abuse, family problems, grief, employment, housing and other issues.
The first stop for many who call the crisis line is the local suicide prevention coordinator or a crisis coordinator. During office hours, the crisis line responder will get the local coordinator on the phone with the caller to ensure the connection is made.
While Tricia is on the phone with Steven, she is scrolling through a list of VA crisis coordinators, looking for one in Steven's area. Bluish light from her computer screen bathes her face as she squints and furrows her brow.
I hear you, Steven ... I would like to connect you with someone who can help get you your medicine and look into where your check is, and ... Yes ... And help make your life a little easier, is it okay if I do that for you, Steven? Now, what are you going to do to keep yourself safe tonight? ... Well, Steven, that's not okay just to say you will try not to ... You still have wine in the house? It's gone? Okay ... So your plan is to get something to eat and try to sleep, that's good ... You know Steven, I'm really glad you called here tonight, I am really glad I am sitting on this side of the phone and you reached out to talk to somebody, all right?
The crisis line responders say that in the course of even a short call, an emotional bond emerges on both ends of the line. Callers seem to be more willing to divulge intimate and often embarrassing details about their life on the phone than they would be in a face-to-face conversation with a therapist. Their openness seems to evoke a similar intimate response on the part of the crisis line staff.
"You are given the opportunity to be at your best when others are at their worst,'' explained Joe McMahon, a former police officer who served for 20 years as a crisis intervention specialist.
Or as Fenton put it: "Sometimes you spend hours on the phone with a guy who says at the end, 'I love you,' and without hesitation I say it right back, 'I love you.'''
But the responders aren't pushovers. "I had one guy who had seen and done some pretty unsavory things and he wanted to confess before he ended his life," McMahon said. "Well, I'm not willing to play that role. I told him, 'I don't want to clear that way for you [to die]. My job is to keep you safe.''' And he did. McMahon directed the police to the caller's home and he was saved.
Okay, Steven, I heard you say you agree that you will not hurt yourself tonight, thank you for giving me your word on that, and you agreed that you will let me call a crisis coordinator, and, Steven? Is it okay if I call you back in a couple of weeks to see how you're doing, is that something you would allow me to do? Okay, I will do that. And if you need us tonight, just pick up the phone and call us, okay? ... You are welcome so much, I am glad you called, thank you.
When Steven hangs up, Tricia is motionless for a moment, then arches back in her chair and lets off an explosive PHEW! She laughs in relief. "Oh, boy!" she says with a sigh of relief. "Oh, boy!"
There is little time for celebration that a life has been saved. The phones are ringing.
The Veterans Crisis Line can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or via text to 838255. The Crisis Line website can be found here.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported the outcome of McMahon's interaction with a caller who said he wanted to confess before ending his life.