Since COVID-19 struck, distress lines have been lighting up at the nation’s oldest suicide prevention center.
The Journal of Alta California / July 8, 2020
In 2014, after trying several times to take her own life, Ann Taylor, a former physical therapist and mother of two, went to a support group on Los Angeles’s Westside for survivors of suicide attempts. It was raining that day, she recalls, but she stood outside for a time, too scared to go in. Once she was inside, the facilitators at the Didi Hirsch Suicide Prevention Center asked everyone to introduce themselves and invited them to talk openly about their attempts and what they were hoping to get out of the group. “I just cried the whole time,” Taylor says. “I couldn’t speak. I was overwhelmed. It’s hard to admit that you tried to kill yourself.” Attendees were asked to rate on a scale of one to five—five being the most dire—the intensity of their suicidal intent (how committed they were to the physical act of killing themselves) and their suicidal desire (how much they wanted to die). “My desire was a five, and my intent was probably a three,” Taylor says. “So yeah, pretty high.”
When Taylor first came to Didi Hirsch, its primary operations were housed in a nondescript, beige building tucked in a residential area of Culver City. Last year, the organization’s Suicide Prevention Center moved into a three-story, 14,000-square-foot facility on a busy Westside stretch of Olympic Boulevard. An enormous azure sign with “SUICIDE PREVENTION CENTER” in big block capital letters was promptly placed outside. Upstairs, a corps of staff and volunteers answers the center’s crisis lines around the clock. Calls jumped from 100,000 in 2018 to 130,000 last year, in keeping with a similar rise across the country. “It was the biggest jump we’ve had in a long time,” says Lyn Morris, the center’s senior vice president of clinical operations. When COVID-19 struck earlier this year, coronavirus-related calls to the center’s disaster distress line—which was created to help people in crises related to man-made and natural disasters, such as mass shootings and wildfires—rose from 615 in February to 2,300 in April. Lately, nearly half of the calls to this special line have been related to the pandemic.
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