How Suicide Hotline Operators Talk Callers Down From the Edge

This week's Suicide Prevention Day is a reminder of people on the front line.

ByABC News
September 8, 2014, 4:03 PM
Suicide prevention hotline operators look for a series of cues from their caller when determining a crisis situation.
Suicide prevention hotline operators look for a series of cues from their caller when determining a crisis situation.
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— -- More people are likely to kill themselves today than any other day this week.

"If we go with the triggers of loss and change, Mondays have a higher rate than the end of the week,” John Plonski, a suicide hotline supervisor with 30 years’ experience, told ABC News.

He also cited the “common misconception" that there is a spike in suicides around the holidays.

"Springtime is where the number of suicides actually increases," Plonski said.

But it’s a year-round issue as National Suicide Prevention Week starts today, witnessed by the recent high-profile suicides of pop singer Simone Battle and actor Robin Williams.

GRL Singer Simone Battle's Death Ruled a Suicide

Actor Robin Williams Is Dead at 63 of Suspected Suicide

For suicide prevention hotline operators like Plonski, they follow a set of cues when trying to determine a caller's risk level: whether they've experienced a recent loss or change, and the start of a new time of year -- or even week -- all come up as contributing factors in suicides.

Plonski, who’s director of virtual crisis supervisors at the Kristin Brooks Hope Center, a Washington, D.C.-based suicide prevention charity and hotline, said he has spoken to a "few thousand" distressed individuals over various hotlines since his first call July 7, 1984.

More than 800,000 people worldwide commit suicide every year, with about 39,000 cases in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Most callers to hotlines, Plonski said, do not immediately start talking about their suicidal thoughts, leading to a longer, more incremental conversation.

"One woman one time called me from the other side of the country and talked about breaking a nail," Plonski said. "I'm saying 'OK, breaking a nail isn't a big thing for me, but what else is going on?'"

The woman went on to explain how she was cleaning her house after hosting the reception following her slain son's funeral, and broke a nail in the process, serving as a proverbial breaking point.

"The whole idea was she wanted to be with her son," Plonski said. "She didn't initially identify [as suicidal].

"You want to engage the person, you want the person to trust you, you want the person to be able to share with you.”

Talking through issues, specifically addressing the reasons callers feel like they want to end their lives, is an important role of the crisis operator. That step is largely skipped, however, when the caller says there is a reason to believe his or her life is in danger by, for example, saying that he or she has a gun or has swallowed pills.

"That's not a crisis situation, that's not intervention; that's an emergency,” he said. “We need to get a mobile crisis unit out there immediately.”