Two weeks ago, after Robin Williams hanged himself in his Bay Area home, the press and the white waters of social media reacted according to the same formula whenever suicide enters the news cycle. Shock morphs into a sanguine retrospective of the deceased’s life. A swarm of articles and blog posts lament the horror of suicide. Then begins the advice-giving: calls for vigilance against the scourge of mental illness, reminders to seek out preventative treatments, and entreaties to overcome the stigma against mental illness in the search for help. Finally, the urgent postscript: If you’re feeling suicidal right now, please call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK.
Signing off an article with the hotline number always feels like the writer’s feeble attempt to compensate for his inability to write a Zoloft prescription. But it’s unclear how effective these hotlines even are—as the head of the American Association of Suicidology admitted last year—or how effective any “policy, drug, or intervention” aimed at suicide-risk reduction actually is, as The New York Times reported earlier this year.
Erecting barriers on bridges may reduce suicide rates even when another nearby bridge is available, but outside of that controlled environment, there’s often very little to be done. Suicide can be impulsive, but just as often, it’s methodical. By the time someone could benefit from a friendly phone call, he’s likely already developed a personalized battle-plan against the self. The bromidic protocol of a telephone hotline is simply no match.
I’ve had waves of suicidality for the past ten years, some of them resulting in near-fatal attempts, some of them no more than a general death-y feeling. But I always avoided the hotline. I had developed every possible counterpoint to every possible argument to stay alive. Even if I hadn’t, I figured the arguments would be unpersuasive when offered by a stranger over the phone. But late last year, I decided to call it: not because I needed an impartial third party to mitigate self-destruction. Like a lifelong New Yorker who had never visited Coney Island, I felt like I owed it to myself to see what it was, after occupying the world of mental illness for so long. So I called 1-800-273-TALK.
It began like any other customer service experience: an automated message welcomed me to the hotline and told me to hold. Guitar synths from the 1990s digitally strummed, until—“Hello?” A woman in her early 50s answered, a little annoyed, the way people would greet me when I cold-called them in the middle of the day during a stint as a telemarketer. (It would be more accurate to write it as, “Hello…”)
“Hi,” I said.
“How may I help you.” Period. I could hear the beige of her cubicle.
“Oh, um…I just…this is the hotline, I thought I’d give you guys a call…I know it’s late on your end,” I said stuttering like an idiot, thrown off by her disaffected-customer-service-rep persona. I was worried about pissing her off more, because I’d already pissed her off by calling in the first place, and I knew that if I really were to begin my litany of grief that it would make her cubicle even beiger and her life even shittier, because that’s the impression I get when someone makes their question marks sound like periods. “So what do you guys do?”
“I can still help you.” Which was a weird thing to say, so I asked again.
“What do I do, and what do you do?”
“You just talk.” (Barbed, staccato ‘t’.)
“What if someone’s not imminently suicidal? Do you have, like, a list of things you say? How does it work on your end?”
“There’s nothing programmed. There’s nothing written.” Which was probably untrue and likely quoted verbatim from a sign pasted to her cubicle wall.
“I was curious about the calls you get. Do you get a lot of addiction calls?”
“We get every call.”
“How long have you been working there for?”
“We can’t talk about me.”
“I’m sorry. I just empathize with you because here it’s 4 A.M., and I imagine you have a dreary job working the graveyard shift listening to suicidal people.” I chuckled, and she chuckled back, which meant either: Haha, yeah, my job sucks, thanks for at least recognizing it; or, haha, I know you thought that was funny, so I’m going to pretend I thought it was funny too, so you don’t fucking kill yourself.
I told her that I’d never called the hotline before and I figured I’d do it this time, and she said okay, and I said okay. I didn’t feel like talking about myself, and she wouldn’t talk about her, so I hung up.
And that was it, a suicide crisis number’s first line of defense. She may have sounded like I was the sixth caller in a row to complain that my printer didn’t work, but that’s the place, nevertheless, where all the heartfelt columnists will send you at the end of their articles. According to a 2007 study by researchers from the University of Quebec, this is the kind of half-baked conversation that purportedly prompted the hotline to institute new training for hotline workers, making sure they ask, for instance, “Are you suicidal right now?”
Did a customer service rep ask William that before he died? Did he even reach for the phone and call the hotline? Maybe he was afraid of all the stigma associated with mental illness to call the hotline or avail himself of all effective treatments, or he just didn’t know how much everyone loved him. Except that he did avail himself of effective treatments (as recently as last month, when he reentered rehab to “fine-tune” his sobriety. And he was publicly forthright about how terrible he felt all the time. And how was he supposed to know that everyone loved him when for the past 10 years critics flayed his work to the point where Mrs. Doubtfire and Good Morning Vietnam were obscured by Old Dogs and Night at the Museum. Maybe the oncoming fate of Parkinson’s disease inspired Williams to draw up the debits and credits of life on the back of a napkin, add up what he had (a roaringly successful few decades), subtract from it what he might have thought he had left (more bad reviews, yearly destruction of the motor portions of his brain), and saw a negative number.
The point is, we’ll never know.
Articles within the post-suicide genre—the ones that advise you to call the customer service number if you’re feeling like the person in the news—never reckon that there’s not a standardized protocol for a personal void, and we’re not here to diagnosis Williams and say that he was brought down by bipolar disorder or addiction or even Parkinson’s, and that he could have followed the steps. And it doesn’t help to write that you totally know what he was going through because you’ve felt depressed or used to do too much blow.
Maybe the woman who answered my hotline call was just weary because she knew how useless the protocol was (“How can I help you. No, really, how?”), which she’d been through a thousand times and heard every person hang up sounding as death-driven as when they’d called. And she knew that without knowing the person , there really was nothing she could do, because she has no idea who she’s talking to. So I called somebody else.