Local clinic suffers a crisis of its own
June 11, 2008 · Updated 11:32 AM
"Thirty-five years ago, if you had a family member or friend who was contemplating suicide, there weren't many options. You could call paramedics or police, but depression wasn't well-understood and the person suffering likely would be checked into a sanitarium or an institution - perhaps against his or her will. Today, people can call the Crisis Clinic of the Peninsulas if they are depressed, suicidal or just need to talk. Volunteers, who staff the hotline 24 hours a day, seven days a week, are trained to handle crisis situations and have a database of community referrals to back them up.But lately, even Crisis Clinic volunteers and staff have been stressed, mainly due to a lack of volunteers.In the last two months, three Crisis Clinic employees had to fill in 83 hours for gaps in volunteers' schedules. That adds a lot of strain to their already-full work schedules.We really don't have a lot of wiggle room with our schedule, said Patty Thomas, who manages the United Way Infolink Database and fills in for volunteers.The clinic has 43 volunteers, barely enough to cover one person per shift - and often one volunteer is overwhelmed by calls.We definitely need double coverage, especially during our Monday through Friday 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. rush. Our county is growing, said Riki Jacobs, Crisis Clinic manager. She said the shortage of volunteers is a continuous problem and she would like to have at least 60 volunteers. Training for Crisis Clinic, the second-oldest in the nation, combines 30 hours of classroom instruction - lecture, role playing and hand-outs - and 10 hours of observation. There is a $20 materials fee.The same class at OC would cost $300, Jacobs said.Flexibility, empathy, good listening skills, patience, a non-judgmental attitude and a sense of humor are important characteristics for volunteers. It's like M.A.S.H. - you have to laugh to survive. Sometimes you hear things that break your heart, but you can't take it home with you. You have to laugh, Jacobs said.Volunteers said the job isn't always easy, but it is highly rewarding.For me, I like helping people help themselves, said Violet Mays, a two-year Crisis Clinic volunteer. You usually have one call that makes you feel really good - someone who comes around. Of course, if you can save someone from suicide, that's good.Volunteers, who work at least four hours a week plus one graveyard shift a month, make a one-year commitment. The volume of calls varies greatly according to time of day and season. Jacobs said the volume is greatest in the spring or right after the holiday season and during full and new moons.It's a roll of the dice, said Andy Baker, a student who has volunteered for the hotline for a year and a half. Sometimes I get 34 calls in four hours and sometimes I get two calls in four hours.The high volunteer turnover, according to Jacobs, likely is due to the job not being what people expect, sometimes inflexible schedules and life changes like moving, getting married or having a child. The Crisis Clinic also competes with several other agencies for volunteers. Most callers aren't in immediate danger of killing themselves because a call to the clinic is often a sign they want to live, Jacobs said. Some need shelter, food or diapers - the Crisis Clinic takes after-hours calls for United Way Infolink, which tries to connect people with community resources. There are many chronic callers - people who are lonely and call often to chat with hotline volunteers, but generally aren't in danger of killing themselves. However, there are times when callers have serious intentions, and volunteers must take steps to dissuade them.We try to talk them down first, Baker said. We just listen and offer suggestions.Next, volunteers try to contract with callers - they ask them to promise to wait until they can see a counselor the next morning or to wait three days to see if the crisis fades.Finally, volunteers offer referrals though the United Way InfoLink Database.What we have found is that the crisis often goes away when people are put in touch with resources, Jacobs said. If a person has no place to stay and is thinking they might as well kill themselves and what's the point of living, finding shelter can be a big help.The clinic serves callers from Kitsap, Jefferson and Clallam counties. "