When suicide threats come calling: 'I try to make a connection.'
Posted July 22, 2018 6:06 p.m. EDT
TAMPA -- At first glance, it's a typical office with more than a dozen cubicles under florescent lights. The operators wear headsets and stare into computer screens, some tinkering with handheld toys, others browsing Facebook or chatting with colleagues when the phones go quiet. The faint sound of tapping keyboards is nearly constant.
Then a burst of classical music plays -- loudly -- and the energy in the room goes still.
Along the cubicles, their eyes shift to one another until someone speaks up.
"I got it," says Taylor Turosz.
The musical ringtone carries a particular urgency -- that a call from the National Suicide Prevention Hotline has been routed here, to the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay. The center also handles a half-dozen other hotlines dealing with sexual assault, veterans issues and substance abuse, among other topics, but suicide calls take priority.
Suddenly, Turosz is talking to a man who says he's holding a loaded gun. His sister just died; now he wants to die too.
Turosz pulls her knees up to her chest in the rolling office chair. She tucks a long strand of red hair behind her ear. The rings on her fingers clink against the keys as she takes notes, the letters on the screen spelling trouble on the other end of the line.
He felt like people are better off without him. He's very distraught.
"Where are you now?" Turosz asks him more than once.
She speaks softly, calmly, maternally. But most of the time, Turosz, a 27-year-old University of South Florida student, just listens.
"I can hear that you're really upset," she tells him. "I want to understand what's going on around you."
• • •
Turosz has worked at the crisis center for only a year, but on a typical weekday evening shift, she could answer up to 30 calls before the end of the night.
The crisis center is one of a handful of centers in Tampa Bay that answer suicide hotline calls from the national 1-800 number. Every time a celebrity commits suicide, the center sees a spike in calls that day, or that week, or even that month. And when the deaths come in waves -- like earlier this summer with the much-publicized suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and television personality Anthony Bourdain -- the number of calls just pour in, Turosz said.
"I don't think people realize how personal it can be. People are hurt, and those of that particular fan base feel it more deeply," she said. "They identify more. But we're glad people do call. I always hope they do rather than not."
In Florida, nearly twice as many people die by suicide than homicide every year, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. That means, on average, one person dies by suicide every three hours in the state.
But more people are talking openly about the topic, which is a major cultural shift that makes it feel less taboo, Turosz said.
She credits some of that to the controversial Netflix series, 13 Reasons Why, which features story lines such as teen suicide, school shootings, drugs and rape.
"We do get a lot more younger people calling in," she said. "The show is definitely not fully based on reality, but if it's helping young people want to talk about it, that's better than not talking about it at all."
Netflix faced scrutiny over the graphic nature of the show when it was released last year. As season two made its debut a few months ago, some groups still criticized the show, saying it could do more harm than good.
While fielding calls during an evening shift last week, Turosz used phrases like "it sounds like you're having a rough time" and "that makes sense to me."
As she listens, she looks up resources that may help callers at least in the short term, like connecting them with suicide prevention support or helping them find programs that can assist them with paying rent when on the verge of being evicted.
"You only get a snippet of someone's life when they call in, but I try to make a connection," she said.
When Turosz answers the phone, she offers the caller a name but it's not her own. That's for her own safety. She chose a name based on a character in one of her favorite books.
Early into her shift, which begins around 4 p.m. and lasts past midnight, she talks to a distraught parent whose adult child is addicted to drugs.
"Let's focus on today," she says evenly as she listens and types notes. She connects the parent with a few clinics in the area for drug treatment.
But not all the calls go as smoothly.
Another time, a man called in while fleeing a domestic violence situation. He was living out of a storage shed and wanted to die.
"He lost everything," Turosz said. "He was being abused physically and emotionally. But it was his desire to reconnect with his adult children that helped him turn around."
Most people just want someone to listen.
"Often times, they're looking for someone to validate their experience and what they're feeling," she said. "Sometimes they don't really want to hear answers. All they can think about is how much pain they're in and they just want someone to know."
During quieter periods, Turosz works with new crisis center employees to train them on how to handle stressful calls. Answering the National Suicide Prevention hotline is reserved for the most senior operators. Turnover at the call center is frequent, she said.
Turosz steps out of the center and into an empty conference room. She dials the desk number to a new operator, and the moment someone answers, Turosz is crying and screaming. She's playing the role of a woman who was drugged, date-raped, and slipped into a deep depression.
"I haven't gone to Pilates class in a while," she says. "I'm not really hungry so I don't each much. I don't remember the last time I took a shower."
These are the kinds of details the operators are trained to pick up on, Turosz said. They signal something is wrong and the person could be at greater risk than they let on.
• • •
Before starting at the crisis center, Turosz worked as a funeral home director in Tampa. But she said she's always been drawn to mental health and generally enjoys helping people. She started at the center by volunteering with its sexual assault program. She's studying behaviorial health at USF.
Her 24-year-old colleague, Anna Snead, studied criminal justice at the University of Tampa and interned at the center before being hired full-time.
During difficult calls, employees send each other encouraging messages or walk over to whisper advice. Snead keeps the board game, Apples to Apples, in her desk drawer as a way to lift the mood during lulls.
At home, she says she copes by watching TV with her husband and keeping journals.
"I have a book of positive sayings on my desk which makes me feel better," Snead said. "We had a self-care Olympics in the office not long ago. At home, my husband gives me five minutes to talk about my day, but after that, that's it. I leave it here at work."
One time Snead spent 90 minutes on the phone with a young homeless woman who had an 8-month-old baby. She had suffered domestic violence and feared going to jail because of unpaid traffic tickets. It wasn't the first time she'd considered suicide.
Snead convinced her to sleep in her car at a local state park, where rangers would monitor the parking lot and she'd be safer than on the side of the street. The woman said their talk had given her hope and she thanked Snead.
Those are the moments when the job feels worthwhile.
Like the other day, when the man who lost his sister and wanted to shoot himself. Turosz stayed on the phone with him for nearly two hours, until she felt his demeanor start to turn around.
"But by the end of it," she said, "he unloaded his gun."
Contact Justine Griffin at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. Follow @SunBizGriffin.
By the numbers:
Calls handled by the Crisis Center of Tampa Bay last year
Number of calls considered crisis situations
Number of people who received suicide prevention assessments
Florida's rank nationwide for rates of suicide
The rate of suicide deaths in Florida per 100,000 people.
The national suicide rate.
Suicide prevention resources in Tampa Bay and beyond:
Crisis Center of Tampa Bay: 2-1-1
American Foundation For Suicide Prevention: (212) 363-3500
National Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255
Sources: Crisis Center of Tampa Bay, American Foundation For Suicide Prevention