Suicide prevention programs through Samaritans are struggling to find enough volunteers to guarantee that people are there to listen and offer support when a person calls a crisis line.
This trend is happening across the country, including at the four programs in Massachusetts, said Stephen Mongeau, executive director of Samaritans in Boston.
“I don’t know of a Samaritans program or a suicide prevention organization nationwide that isn’t in need of more support in terms of volunteers and other resources,” he said, noting that this includes the Falmouth-based Samaritans on Cape Cod and the Islands, an individual 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization that does its own fundraising and often collaborates with other Samaritans programs in Greater Boston, MetroWest and elsewhere in the state.
Volunteers answered calls to the Samaritan crisis lines from an Enterprise reporter on Thursday, September 19. Stephanie G. Kelly, executive director of the local Samaritans group, could not be reached for comment.
While Mr. Mongeau said he was unaware until Thursday of any specific issues with the crisis lines on Cape Cod, he said that each Samaritans group has its own lines during daytime hours and that all calls are routed to the Boston location during overnight hours. All texts are also routed to Boston throughout the day.
Earlier this week the Boston location discovered a call-routing problem with its 877-873-HOPE (4673) line. Some callers received messages that said, “The number you dialed is not in service.” The problem was corrected Thursday, Mr. Mongeau said.
“Our crisis lines receive over 25,000 phone calls each year from people in need. Some callers feel overwhelmed, sad, or lonely. Others feel angry or confused, and may have nowhere else to turn,” the Cape Cod Samaritans website says. “Samaritan volunteers are here to listen every day of the year, including holidays. Volunteers are available from 8 AM to 10:30 PM weekdays and weekends. Although we strive to have overnight coverage too, sometimes it’s not always possible. If we do not have a volunteer on duty at night, callers receive a message asking them to call the Boston Samaritans hotline.”
Mr. Mongeau said he is strongly in favor of a federal initiative to make “988” the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which is now 800-273-TALK (8255). US Representative Seth W. Moulton (D-Massachusetts) is one of the legislation’s backers.
“One integrated line would be a godsend and would result in higher call-answered rates,” Mr. Mongeau said.
Falmouth Director of Human Services Suzie Hauptmann said the reports of unanswered calls are “concerning.”
“I plan to reach out to our local and regional partners to find out how this is going to be addressed because we should certainly expect that at the other end of a crisis line is someone who is available to listen and provide comfort,” she said Thursday. “The Samaritans have a long history of providing a crisis line and other quality suicide prevention and mental health support programs on Cape Cod, and I do hope that this situation is fixed expeditiously.”
Falmouth Human Services is also available to help residents connect to mental health services they may need as well as provide counseling for residents unable to access services elsewhere, Ms. Hauptmann said.
“Our number is 508-548-0533, and we are open Monday to Friday from 8 AM to 4:30 PM,” she said.
State Representative David T. Vieira (R-East Falmouth) said that he hopes the recent awareness that the Samaritans of Cape Cod and the Islands is struggling to staff its suicide hotline “will inspire those with some free time and compassion to volunteer.”
“The Samaritans are doing lifesaving and important work in our community, and I am confident they will be able to overcome this challenge,” he said.
Suicide rates on Cape Cod and the Islands are 1.5 times higher than the state average, the Cape & Islands Suicide Prevention Coalition said.