Reach Out and Help Someone

Potential suicide. Sexual anxiety. Adolescent angst. No matter how hung-up you are, the counselors at Switchboard of Miami won't hang up -- or give up -- on you.

To Chuck, after taking thousands of calls, the underlying problems people face in Miami haven't really changed. People still get lonely and depressed, and, he argues, callers' needs for a place to stay, medical care, and food are no different today than they were years ago -- with one difference. "We used to deal with poverty-stricken students. Now there's a different population," he observes, referring to the influx of poverty-stricken immigrants.

Switchboard of Miami helpline director Nelson Rodney sees it differently: "We get different calls now, because society has changed in 26 years. The problems we get now are more complex, more difficult to handle." Rampant homelessness, crack addiction, AIDS -- in some ways, they make dealing with an overdose of 'ludes seem easy.

The mission, however, remains the same. "We've always been on call to help the community meet its human needs," Rodney explains. In doing so the hotline also serves as an early warning system for gaps in social services: Frantic calls for food following Hurricane Andrew made it clear there was no centralized resource for food distribution or referrals for the hungry, and that spurred Switchboard of Miami's leaders to join with other groups in lobbying for a government-funded food bank. It also has pushed for more slots in drug-treatment programs and homeless services. In the future, Rodney predicts, the helpline will follow the latest innovation in this field: setting up kiosks in drugstores with a do-it-yourself computerized-referral program and a direct phone line to the switchboard. No matter how high-tech the switchboard may become, however, the need for one-on-one help will remain.

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The personal touch the hotline offers is no lucky accident; it arises from a thorough, in-depth training program. The program is considered valuable enough that other organizations, from Metro Police Department 911 operators to South Miami Hospital, are willing to pay up to $500 a day for it. "You can't teach empathy," says Nelson Rodney, "but you can teach people how to project empathy." The 60 hours of classroom training offered by the switchboard is free to potential volunteers who make a six-month commitment to work the phone lines. In recent weeks the switchboard has been teaching the staff of the Center for Haitian Studies, along with a few other volunteers; the Haitian graduates then will add their Creole-speaking abilities to the hotline.

On a recent weekday a dozen students are being plunged into the grim world of suicide intervention. Cathryn Lowe, the training coordinator, tells them, "People are ambivalent A they want to get rid of the pain but they don't want to die. That can be your lucky ring; you can get your hooks into that ambivalence." Besides learning in these classes about such topics as family disputes, the hallmarks of depression, and the types of suicidal behavior, students also are given an instruction sheet about the "Do's and Don'ts of Suicide Intervention." Among the missteps: "Don't engage in a debate with the suicidal person because you may not only lose the debate, but also the person." Another no-no: "AVOID GUILT TRIPS."

Students are asked to perform the roles of both counselor and caller, but before they do that Lowe plays them two tapes: one of a successful role-playing exercise, the second a blood-curdling conversation between a Metro-Dade 911 operator an actual victim who has ingested pills before calling. The operator clearly hasn't been trained in intervention techniques. Her comments during the crisis are a textbook illustration of counseling mistakes: She makes value judgments, puts the caller on hold, fails to establish a human connection, tells the person not to cry.

The students will, Lowe hopes, do better. The role-playing today involves a Haitian man, Romuald, and Carolyn, a young psychology student. (Before the weeks of training are over each student will have undergone hours of role-playing.) Their chairs are placed back to back, and he acts noticeably depressed. "I received bad news today," he says, and Carolyn responds, "Do you want to tell me about it?" Gradually he reveals that he's tested positive for AIDS. "I want to put an end to it all," he says, then admits that he's got a loaded gun on him. "Do you have any friends you can talk with?" she soon asks.

Lowe interrupts, pointing up to Carolyn, "You need more reflecting of his feelings." One key to keeping the caller on the line -- and alive -- is what the switchboard calls "active listening," in effect reflecting back to the caller the sentiments he's expressing and listening for the emotions that underlie his words. "Acknowledge his aloneness," Lowe instructs. And she offers a note of reassurance: "As long as you're getting communication going, there's no need to reach for the panic button just because there's a gun."

In the real world that sort of advice is helpful because it can be far more nerve-wracking trying to counsel a real potential suicide than one of your fellow students. For instance, on a Friday night, shortly after 10:00, a caller barks at Amy, "I'm a fucking suicide." He's slightly drunk and quite upset: "I can't let go of my past." He's just finished watching the film Platoon and it's dredged up all his old memories of the Vietnam War.

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