At 8:15 on a Tuesday evening, Sara Majoros picks up the phone.
On the other end is a man named Jared* who explains he’s calling in to Common Ground’s 24-hour resource and crisis help line in Pontiac because he’s feeling lonely and overwhelmed. Work isn’t going well, a friend recently passed away, and just the other day, he ran into some legal troubles. “That all sounds super stressful,” Majoros, says softly. “It sounds like things are really piling up. Take a deep breath. We can breathe through this together.”
As she talks, she makes notes on a scrap piece of paper. At the top: Jared’s name, age, and city. Below that, a box with words that reflect the emotions he’s describing during the call: “angry,” “upset,” “trapped,” “unheard,” “burden.” Elsewhere in the room, along a bank of cubicles, four other volunteers answer phones or respond to the crisis center’s text chat from users in Oakland County and beyond. “You’re brave to share all of that with me, Jared,” Majoros says. “You’re doing a really good job tonight by calling us. I just want to make sure you’re safe tonight. Are you thinking about suicide?” There’s a pause as Jared answers. Behind Majoros’ desk, several colorful print-outs are taped to the wall for decoration. The common theme in each: Elephants. To her right, by the office coffee maker, stands a small collection of stuffed elephants and figurines. “Thank you for being honest with me, Jared,” she says. “To me, it doesn’t sound like you want to die tonight. It sounds like you just want this pain to end.”
Fifteen minutes later, Majoros, 53, hangs up. Jared, in his own words, is feeling better now that he’s talked to someone. Together, the two of them have devised a short-term plan to alleviate some of his stress. First, he’s going to eat, then he’s going to see if he can make an appointment with his therapist, and in a few hours, he’ll call back to let Majoros know how he’s feeling. He might even come in to Common Ground’s resource and crisis center, where, among a legal clinic and a graduated apartment program for homeless adults, the nonprofit provides free crisis intervention and stabilization for Oakland Country residents.
From 1999 to 2016, suicide rates in the U.S. increased nearly 30 percent. In Michigan, the rate during that time span rose nearly 33 percent.
As she sets down the phone, Majoros explains that Jared’s a fairly typical call. Twice a week, during her four-hour shift, she chats with a handful of people just like him who are going through a challenge. Every time, she simply listens, offers words of encouragement, and provides them with a list of websites or other resources that might help their situation. As a rule, however, she and the other volunteers at Common Ground don’t dole out advice. Instead, whether they’re addressing suicide, depression, or any other mental health issue that others might not be comfortable discussing, they follow the creed summed up by the office’s décor: Always acknowledge the elephant in the room.
Within the past few decades, suicide has emerged as a national public health issue. From 1999 to 2016, suicide rates in the U.S. increased nearly 30 percent. In Michigan, the rate during that time span rose nearly 33 percent. Still though, federally funded programs dedicated to addressing mental health issues don’t often receive the help they need. President Trump’s 2019 budget proposal, for example, allots an additional $1 million for the Children’s Mental Health Services program, but it also cuts spending for the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration by $665 million. Additionally, the National Institute of Mental Health is slated to see a 30 percent reduction in funding. This year, with the deaths of celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, suicide has become a frequently discussed topic in the media and among mental health advocacy groups — especially since studies show that after a celebrity takes their own life, the rate of suicide often increases. As Majoros explains, however, the issue is far from new. “People die every single day because of suicide,” she says. “[It] has always been a trending topic.”
Majoros herself can attest. She lost her brother to suicide in 2001, which is what encouraged her to volunteer at Common Ground seven years ago. “My brother and I grew up in a time when nobody talked about anything [that was uncomfortable], especially suicide,” Majoros says. “After he died, it was like, ‘What’s the point of keeping secrets?’ ”
Now, she, along with Common Ground’s pool of about 50 to 70 active volunteers, ensures that anyone who needs an ear has one. On any night, the resource and crisis help line is staffed with about five or six volunteers responding to calls, texts, or chats that come in through both the national crisis hotline and its regional affiliate. Eighty to 90 percent of calls are local, and most nights, the total number of calls received adds up to around 150, which equates to more than 50,000 a year. “Everyone here is so open-hearted and compassionate,” Majoros says. “I’m not a church-going person, but coming here is like my church.”
A Life-Changing Experience
Common Ground’s volunteer base is composed of an eclectic bunch. They are medical students, engineers, parents, counselors, and, oftentimes, law enforcement officials. In fact, as part of their required training, local SWAT team members have the option to volunteer on the line to hone their crisis intervention skills. “Essentially, anyone who’s open-minded and nonjudgmental can make a great volunteer,” says volunteer coordinator Melissa Hope. “But if you have to narrow it down to one thing, it’s someone who can be a good listener.”
Most often, the calls that volunteers listen to aren’t as dramatic as people think. Majoros says only a small fraction of calls she receives come from people actively contemplating suicide. In her seven years as a volunteer, she’s addressed three to five. Instead, most people call because they’re lonely or anxious. Teens call in about bullying, relationships, and family issues. Adults call in worrying about the stress of parenting or how to approach their child’s mental health issues. Some calls last over an hour, but most average around 10 minutes. Some people call every day. Some have been calling in for 30 years. No matter who’s calling or who’s answering, though, Hope says, “You get the call you’re meant to take.”
Before you can take those calls, however, volunteers at Common Ground go through an extensive, 96-hour training process. As part of the program, volunteers learn the basics of effective crisis intervention to address topics like domestic violence, child abuse, and human trafficking. They gain practice by role-playing, identifying a caller’s strengths, and helping callers devise a plan or arrive at a solution themselves. “It’s life-changing,” Majoros says. “Common Ground training felt like getting a master’s degree in life. People have to get in touch with some of their deepest, darkest fears.”
Consequently, not everyone is cut out to be a crisis help line responder. Sometimes, eager volunteers still haven’t healed their own wounds, and discussing certain topics, especially those that responders have a personal connection to, can be triggering. For example, a volunteer with a history of sexual assault may find it difficult to assist someone in a similar situation if their own pain is still lingering. Nonetheless, prospective volunteers are always encouraged to reapply, and oftentimes, when they do, they succeed in becoming helpful members of the team. And as Hope puts it, once you become a volunteer, many people embrace it as part of their identity. “It becomes who you are,” she says.
When Majoros ends her shift on Tuesday, she closes the day without much commotion. Tonight, she’s answered calls and chats from a handful of people facing financial crises, family issues, and loneliness. Her fellow volunteers have listened to soon-to-be college students express worries about school, elderly people who don’t want to be alone, and dozens of other people with a desire to be heard.
After every shift, a supervisor at Common Ground will offer the chance for volunteers to participate in a debriefing session to speak up about how they’re feeling. On this particular night though, no debriefing is necessary. It’s been a relatively quiet evening, and despite the gravity of some of the calls that have come into the room, there’s a feeling of levity in the air, of having accomplished a goal and done some good. Most days, that’s how it feels, Majoros says. She walks away with the sense that in some way, she’s helped.
“It can be really hard sometimes,” Majoros says. “But our callers are really brave, and it makes us both feel good.” That’s the kind of relief that comes when you’re brave enough to address the elephant in the room.
*Name has been changed for privacy
For more information, visit commongroundhelps.org. And, if you or someone you know is struggling with depression or having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (TALK) or visit speakingofsuicide.com for a list of additional resources.