By Lauren M. Whaley, CHCF Center for Health Reporting
John survived his suicide attempt.
Martina Castillo threatened to take her own life.
Both ended up in Sutter General’s Emergency Department in Sacramento. And both signed up for a unique suicide prevention program that would change their lives.
After being discharged from the hospital, each was matched with a suicide prevention specialist from WellSpace Health. The specialist would call each participant every few days for a month just to check in.
A phone call? Sounds kind of simple. Kind of small. Kind of obvious. A number popping up on someone’s cell phone who just left the ER after a suicide attempt.
“They walk away from this Emergency Department Follow Up program with some coping skills, a safe plan, some ideas about how they can take care of themselves, what they can do when they’re feeling this way again because we know that there will be a higher risk,” said Liseanne Wick, Program Manager of Suicide Prevention & Crisis Services at WellSpace Health (until recently called The Effort).
And, after speaking with both John and Martina, I heard in them the kind of tone that one hears in religious converts or new mothers. Awe. Even elation.
“When they call you, it’s like you’re getting a call from someone who really wants to know how your day is going,” said Martina. “And they’re not going to sit there and talk about themselves, about how hard their day is. They’re listening to you.”
You can hear what Martina told me about the time leading up to her suicide attempt and why the calls are so important to her here:
In addition to Martina, those phone calls made a huge difference to John and about 300 others who have been through the program over the past two years.
John requested that we use only his first name because of the shame associated with suicide. Martina was nervous about using her last name as well.
“It’s a little scary ‘cause [of] how shameful depression is and suicide and mental hospitals and all that. There’s just shame around it and nobody wants to talk about it,” she said. “But, I can’t be ashamed about it anymore. This is who I am. It was a part of me. It is. It’s just who I am.”
Another surprise for me. I assumed that program participants would want to spread their good news; that suicide survivors would want to get the word out and help others. I didn’t expect to face barriers similar to those I encountered while photographing and reporting a story on mental illness and access to care.
“Some people are relieved that they’re alive, and others are really not so happy that they survived the attempt,” said WellSpace Health’s Wick. “So we’re there in the midst of all that to provide emotional support, linkages to treatment that’s really needed and to address those mixed feelings of both wanting to be dead and wanting to be alive or being disappointed that the attempt that you made didn’t work and having to deal with the consequences of that.”
But, the two people who did agree to talk to me both said they’re happy to be alive, and thank the program for that result.
John said suicide prevention specialist Roop Dhillon is “one of those truly wonderful people that you don’t often get to meet in the world.”
“Sometimes there’s this one person that can actually make a connection with you to make things alright and that you feel comfortable that what you tell them is just going to stay with them,” said John. “That there’s going to be no judgment. That you can be open and honest ‘cause they’re sincere about their efforts to try to get you into a better place.”
Listen to the audio: