The suicides grabbed headlines and roused the public’s morbid curiosity. A woman jumped from the fifth level of a mall after kissing her girlfriend goodbye. In a Manila university, an accounting student depressed about failing grades vainly grabbed at a railing midway through her death leap. The two suicides happened within a week towards the end of October.
Such cases make Rica’s job both difficult and fulfilling, as she struggles to remain calm while answering desperate callers and talking them out of their suicidal intent.
“It’s fulfilling to make a difference between life and death, to save one life, to hear a caller say he will put off harming himself in the meantime,” Rica (not her real name) told the Inquirer in a recent interview.
It was 9:30 a.m. on a Monday and Rica was responding to the first call of the day from a depressed and confused woman in her 20s. Her questions were measured and her tone dispassionate: “Do you have thoughts of hurting yourself?” “Breathe in, breathe out.” “Do you have hobbies that can keep you busy?” “I really thank you for making this call your option.”
When the call ended some 15 minutes later, Rica was relieved that the caller, whom she classified as a “low-risk patient,” had at least promised to see her psychiatrist again.
For the past four years, the 38-year-old responder has been one of the nameless and unflappable voices on the other end of Hopeline who help and guide depressed individuals through their darkest hours.
Hopeline is a 24/7 phone-based suicide counseling service originally set up by the Natasha Goulbourn Foundation (NGF) in 2012 and recently adopted by the Department of Health (DOH).
This, NGF president Jean Goulbourn said, gives the service a clearer road map than when the hotline was being sustained by donations and fundraising activities.
Among the toughest and heartbreaking calls that Rica has handled was that from a woman on the verge of killing herself in a bathroom, and that of a drunk man with a history of suicide, who raged at her because of a bad breakup.
Through these stressful calls that can stretch to an hour or so, she was the voice of calm and reason, coaxing the tormented callers to seek professional help instead of harming themselves.
Most of the calls come from midnight up to 3 a.m., and early in the morning, starting at 6 a.m. Calls peak around Valentine’s Day, the start of a new school year, during graduation season and when high-profile cases of suicide are reported.
The holiday season—sometimes described as the merriest time of the year—ironically gets to be the busiest among Hopeline responders as well, with each of them getting from eight to ten calls a day.
Most of the calls are due to family or relationship issues, bullying at school or at work, gender issues, drug and alcohol addiction, anxiety and depression, parental absenteeism, incest or rape, financial difficulties and insomnia.
There are currently 12 Hopeline counselors doing the job that needs both emotional resilience and mental grit. Four are old-timers while the rest are new recruits with solid background in humanitarian work, counseling and community development.
They work in four shifts in a matchbox office in a health facility in Metro Manila, whose location the NGF had requested be kept confidential to protect its call responders from potential stalkers.
Milagros Rollinas, Hopeline’s program head, has been with the hotline since its launch four years ago.
Despite the grim nature of her work, she has stayed, she said, “because I don’t count the hours and the salary. I don’t see this as work but more as part of my mission as a social worker.”
A particular call Rollinas could not forget was from a man ready to leap to his death at the Doroteo Jose station of the Light Rail Transit two years ago.
“I could hear in the background that he was already on the platform as he was telling me that he was going to jump when the next train came,” she recalled.
Such calls don’t allow responders to lose their nerve. They have to keep their composure and think fast, but at the same time, circumspect with their language.
“We are careful with our choice of words because a simple word could become their trigger to harm themselves,” Rollinas said.
Fortunately, after an hour of talking to her, the caller was appeased. Security security guards in the station had been alerted to the suicide attempt as well.
While feeling a mix of fear and hope at the end of every stressful call, “if you are backed by knowledge and are confident that you did all to save him, you will also be at peace,” Rollinas said.
All Hopeline responders undergo a five-day intensive training with the best psychiatrists and psychologists in the country, who also give them regular debriefing to maintain their wellbeing, Goulbourn said.
“It’s very stressful for responders to get a call when life is hanging on a string … but what keeps them going is their heart that really wants to help and save a life. It’s not about getting a monthly salary but about service,” she added.
NGF was named after Goulbourn’s daughter who committed suicide after suffering from severe depression. Setting up the confidential crisis helpline in 2012 was part of its nine-year-old mental health campaign and an offshoot of the initial helplines that NGF started in 2009 for overseas Filipino workers and their families in partnership with Globe Telecom.
When the calls became more frequent, NGF also tapped the now defunct Dial-a-Friend, the first telephone hotline counseling for the youth ran by Foundation for Adolescent Development, and In Touch Community Services for help.
Other partners include Ateneo de Manila University’s Ugat Foundation and the TaosPuso Foundation.
Following the DOH partnership, calls made to Hopeline soared to 2,550 this year from 1,530 in 2015. So far, over 7,270 calls have been made to Hopeline over the last four years.
While the country has the lowest suicide rate among its Asian neighbors, mental health experts and advocates have noted that incidences have been increasing over the last 21 years.
In 2012, there were 2,558 suicides reported in the country, 550 of them women and 2,008 men, according to the World Health Organization.
Goulbourn said with the DOH partnership, Hopeline was looking to reach more individuals suffering from crisis and depression by putting on board responders who can speak Visayan, Ilocano and the Bicol dialects.
“We also wish to establish immediate 24-hour services among government hospitals and clinics,” she added.
“It feels good to be an invisible responder to save a life,” said 34-year-old Rose, one of Hopeline’s new recruits.
“Whenever I ride the train and see the passengers, I can’t help but think that maybe I may have helped one of them in a moment of crisis,” she said.
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