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TRIBUNE PHOTO: SCOTT KEITH - Deborah Zwetchkenbaum, assistant director of the crisis line for Lines for Life, supervises incoming calls at the call center.Suicide is tragic, yet baffling. For some, warning signs can indicate when an individual may be close to committing suicide.


Others contemplating suicide are quite adept at keeping their feelings to themselves. Then there are those who simply need a friendly voice at the end of a phone line.

In Portland, those friendly voices are aplenty at Lines for Life, a nonprofit that works to prevent substance abuse and suicide.

Lines for Life, from Aug. 31, 2014 to Aug. 30, 2015, received a total of just under 53,000 calls to all lines. Of that number, according to the organization, just under 9,000 were suicide related.

Lines for Life trains about 120 volunteers each year to staff the phone lines.

“They go through kind of the gold standard of suicide intervention, which is a program called ASIST, which stands for Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training,” David Westbrook, chief operating officer, said. “They’re backed up by masters-level clinicians here at our center.”

Clinicians are close by, to help volunteers. “They can really jump in and help the volunteer,” Westbrook added. “It’s actually pretty amazing in terms of what volunteers are able to do.”

Some volunteers have experienced the same problems they hear from callers, including substance (addiction) issues, suicidal thoughts or mental health issues.

“A lot of times it’s a peer-to-peer model that we’re doing here,” Westbrook said.

Volunteers at Lines for Life are both trained to listen to callers and trained in risk assessments.

“What we’re going to do with the individual is, first, just take the time to be a compassionate listener,” Westbrook said.

Dr. George Keepers, a professor at Oregon Health & Science University and chair of the department of psychiatry, has seen an increase in suicides since the recession.

“Oregon, unfortunately, is one of the states that has one of the higher suicide rates,” Keepers said. “You see that after economic problems in a country, in general.”

Keepers said the Oregon suicide rate is 17.1 per 100,000, which is 41 percent higher than the national average.

Men are nearly four times more likely to die by suicide than women, usually from gunshot wounds, Keepers said, noting risk factors include a history of suicide attempts. “Veterans have a significantly higher suicide rate.”

While some may hide their feelings from others, others may show warning signs of suicide. These can include change in mood, loss of interest in activities, change in sleep pattern and negative attitudes toward themselves.

“Sometimes they will start giving away their things,” Keepers said, adding others may schedule time away from the family, unexpectedly. “That’s a very bad sign.”

Some may hide their symptoms, perhaps feeling shame for having a mental health condition. “It’s not unusual for somebody to put on a good public face and be suffering terribly in private,” Keepers said.

In Oregon, Keepers said rural southwestern and southeastern counties of Oregon have a higher suicide rate than the rest of the state.

According to Deborah Zwetchkenbaum, assistant director of the crisis line program, Lines for Life operates around the clock.

She said, “We are here 24 hours a day, seven days a week to respond to calls from people in our community who may be vulnerable, or struggling, whether it’s with a mental health issue, suicide, or addiction.”

Statistics are sobering on suicides, but there are plenty of resources for those suffering.

“People often go to their primary care physician, that’s the first line,” Keepers said. Ministers, family members and friends can also be of help.

“You don’t want people to stay silent about it. You want them to speak up about how they’re feeling and to seek help,” Keepers said, pointing out that in a metro area such as Portland, there are many professionals and organizations available to help people who are feeling suicidal.

“People who are successful at suicide are often people who have never sought any help,” Keepers said. Most cases of depression, he added, can be successfully treated.

Westbrook said, “This is the kind of work where, at the end of the day, you really know that you’ve had an impact on lives.”

LINES FOR LIFE

The best number to call if you’re considering suicide is: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

According to Westbrook, Lines for Life can guide some callers, who may only be thinking of suicide, to a brief intervention or therapy.

“In about two to five percent of the cases, they’re (callers) at such a critical point that they need an immediate intervention. We say that we are able to de-escalate about 95 percent of all of the folks who call in with suicidal thoughts,” Westbrook said.

On a given 24-hour day, Lines for Life has 22 volunteers and staff handling the phones.

Lines for Life was selected the Oregon affiliate of the National Suicide Prevention Life Line.


Scott Keith is a freelance writer with the Portland Tribune and Pamplin Media Group. If you have a health tip, or a story idea, contact Scott at: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

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