It’s a Friday night in Boston, and Jarrod LaBarge can hear the sounds of the city four floors below. He is sitting in his cubicle just after 5 p.m., midway through a four-hour shift at Samaritans, the suicide prevention hot line, when a new request for help blinks into view: a text message, unspooling silently on the computer screen before him:
I need help now I’m going to commit suicide help me now please help me
The words pulse with urgency in the quiet room.
Jarrod knows nothing yet about the person making the plea. He knows only what his training has taught him to do: Stay present; focus on the words before him. It is a kind of meditation, this unpaid service he performs once each week in an office building in the heart of Downtown Crossing. His task is anchored in the 40-year tradition of Boston’s Samaritans, one of the oldest suicide prevention efforts in the United States. Yet Jarrod also sits outside that tradition, in partially uncharted territory, assisting suicidal people by text message.
It is potentially lifesaving aid for a generation that has largely given up on phone calls. And the volunteers who do it function in a kind of vacuum, with no spoken guideposts, moderating life and death decisions on a backlit screen in total silence.
Jarrod lowers his hands to the keyboard and types:
It sounds like you’re going through a lot right now. I’m totally here to listen/help.
He shares his first name, and asks the stranger who has texted him to do the same. Then he leans forward in his seat, watching the screen. An auto-generated message lets him know the other person in the chat is typing. From nearby cubicles in the gray, time-worn room comes the murmur of a few other volunteers engrossed in their own sessions.
All Jarrod can do now is wait.
He has volunteered at the hotline for four years. That makes the 30-year-old a veteran by Samaritans standards; most volunteers move on after a year.
He started a few years after graduating from UMass Amherst. In college, he had focused on his studies to the exclusion of almost everything else, and it had paid off with a good job. He liked his work as a lead engineer at General Dynamics, a global aerospace and defense contractor near Boston. But, after a while, it wasn’t enough.
He had been taught, as a child, that kindness mattered. He grew up in Western Massachusetts. His family didn’t have a lot of money. His mom ran a day-care program in their home, where she only charged as much as families could afford. At their church, she organized a kind of hot line for the faithful: Those who knew someone in need would call her, and she would mobilize dozens of people to pray for them.
In his mid-20s and surveying his life, the softspoken young man went to find a deeper purpose of his own.
One day early in 2013, he Googled a question: “What is the right thing to do?” The search brought up a series of online philosophy lectures. He watched the videos one after another, riveted by the questions they raised about morality and human suffering. The worst pain Jarrod could imagine was wanting to die. He soon stumbled across the Samaritans website and decided to volunteer. It was something he could do to ease that pain.
Suicides were on the rise. In a decade and a half, from 2000 to 2015, the number of suicides in Massachusetts increased 50 percent. More than 630 people died by suicide in 2015, the most recent state data available, roughly twice as many as in car accidents.
Suicide hot lines like Samaritans had begun to see that texting would be essential if they were to reach a population increasingly at risk. American teenagers are besieged by loneliness and despair, some recent studies have found, reporting symptoms of depression at a rate 33 percent higher in 2015 than in 2010. Emergency room visits for self-harm by preteen girls have increased, as have teen suicide attempts and suicides.
It remains unclear whether smartphones, or the remote kind of communication they enable, have contributed to teens’ sense of isolation. But the ubiquitous devices can also be a lifeline.
In October 2015, Boston’s Samaritans launched a hot line specifically for those inclined to talk by text with volunteers. More than 500 conversations now take place that way every month, and the volume continues to grow.
When Jarrod began work there, he handled both phone calls and texts, but he soon found that he preferred texting. He liked having a written record to refer to during his exchanges, noticing nuance he might have initially missed. It was true that text offered fewer obvious emotional cues, the variations in vocal tone that speak volumes during ordinary conversation. But Jarrod craved the lulls that texting gave him, to think and revise his responses before hitting “send.”
As he concentrated on the words on his screen now, this evening in 2017, he had some idea what to expect. Certain patterns had emerged in the Samaritans’ brief history with texting: Texters typically opened up about their problems faster, and in more detail, than people did on the phones. They engaged longer, in sessions lasting 90 minutes on average, versus 12 minutes for phone calls. And there was this: Texters are as much as 10 times more likely than callers to be at immediate risk of killing themselves.
What’s been going on in your life that might be leading to these thoughts? Jarrod typed.
He had learned that the person texting him was a teenage girl, a high school student. She had given him her name, under the condition that he not tell anyone.
His screen quickly filled with her grief, dense blocks of text arriving in rapid succession.
My parents fight and I’ve had an eating disorder and depression for 5 years now
I have extreme anxiety but my parents don’t believe in medicine
[t]hey don’t understand they don’t know how I feel
[n]obody does it’s just not even worth it anymore
She was popular in school, she said — pretending to be perfect, afraid to show the cracks just below the surface.
Its too much and I’ve cut and that numbs the pain that is demanding to be felt
but I also don’t feel anything if that makes sense.
I feel like when I’m gone everything will be okay.
My friend forced me to [contact Samaritans] and I told her they don’t really care
they are just doing their job
So please help me please prove me wrong
Jarrod took rapid-fire notes in an open document on the right side of his screen, quickly crafting sentences and smoothing and trimming and tweaking. Phrases he had polished in the past came to his mind — assurances that what she felt was real, and normal.
It must feel so isolating, he typed. Having to go through so much, for five years, without anyone really listening to you.
This really is a lot to be facing on your own.
He needed to ask crucial questions now. Some volunteers dreaded this step, known as risk assessment, when they probed to figure out if a caller had a suicide plan and was on the brink of carrying it out. Had they uncapped a bottle of pills? Retrieved a nearby gun? Jarrod brought an engineer’s logic to the task, a passion for information that guided him through these stressful interactions. It was a riddle to solve. So he asked.
Just so I have a better understanding of your current situation, he wrote, if you were to end your life, have you thought about how you would do that?
The question glowed unanswered on the screen. Two minutes passed. The sounds of the street below drifted upstairs: Voices. Laughter. The distant honk of cars. Jarrod waited, unshaken by the pause. Texters often went silent for a while.
Then, a new message flashed into view.
I’ve tried to drown myself and suffocate myself
I’ve tried to hang myself
She was talking about the past. He needed to know about tonight.
I’m still trying to get a better understanding of what you’re thinking about, he wrote.
This time her answer came at once.
Any way that would work honestly
I’m so ready to be done for the pain to go away
Jarrod studied the words on the screen. He saw no immediate plan. That was good — it gave him room to keep befriending, as the Samaritans called their core mission. Maybe he could steer her to a calmer place. The way Samaritans volunteers do that is somewhat unexpected: by diving deep into the pain.
Jarrod remembered the long nights of training he’d gone through before his first shift; the manual thick with complicated scenarios; the role-playing with other anxious trainees.
Early on, he had sometimes tried too hard to show the texters that he understood. He dug deep for new words to describe their problems: They weren’t just hard but wrenching, searing, tough. One night on his shift, as he tried to offer help, the person on the line stopped him: You just say that everything is awful. That’s not helpful. It stung, but Jarrod realized the rebuke was true. He recalibrated, collecting advice from more seasoned volunteers, keeping lists of useful phrases in his cubicle.
Four years later, with 900 hours and more than 500 text conversations behind him, Jarrod still retrieved his folder full of useful phrases at the start of every shift. But the papers sat mostly untouched beside him on the desk, next to his mug of steaming French vanilla coffee.
He scrolled through his notes on the young woman texting now. She hid her real feelings from her friends (everybody thinks I’m happy). She had two beloved mentors in her life who knew about her struggles — but now both of them were seriously ill. Losing them, and being more alone than ever, felt like more than she could stand.
I have to hide the true me, she wrote. I’m not lovable when I’m truly myself.
You deserve to have people on your side that you can talk to, Jarrod typed.
It was just after 6 p.m. They had been exchanging messages for an hour. Tell me, Jarrod asked, has it ever felt this bad before?
Things have always been bad . . . but it’s never felt like this, she answered. There was one friend who knew the real her. But I shut him out when I get scared, she wrote.
Jarrod glimpsed a spark of hope. He inquired further: Could she find a way to rely on this friend more? The texter mused about the possibilities. As she did, something shifted in her tone. Her words became reflective. She made a joke, and Jarrod thought: That’s good. They traded more messages, focused on her future. Then, 100 minutes into their chat, the young woman registered the change within herself.
I needed to do this and it really helped . . . even though I’m still anxious and shaky I don’t feel those suicidal thoughts right now and I’m so grateful
You’re going through so much right now, Jarrod wrote. And I know I can’t just suddenly make it better. But I can say that we are always here for you.
I’ve actually got to open up and be myself, the teenager typed, I almost have a different perspective, if that makes sense.
I have gotten to see the real you, Jarrod told her, a final note of validation as the chat wound down, and you’re an insightful, kind, caring person.
Jarrod used to analyze his efforts after every shift, debating other strategies he might have tried. But gradually, he’d learned to let the details of those conversations go. Instead, as he rode the elevator back down to the lobby and made his way to the train those evenings, he searched for the answer to one question: Had he eased somebody’s suffering, just a little?
Often the answer was yes, and that affirmation sustained him, a buffer against doubts or letdowns elsewhere in his life. Neither he nor any of the volunteers at Samaritans learned the fates of those they connected with, briefly and intensely, in the phone room. And Jarrod did not obsess, when skiing or hiking with his girlfriend or reading about space in his Jamaica Plain condo, about whether his sessions had succeeded in saving lives. He had learned to accept the limits of his role, and all the unanswered questions that came with it. All he could do was listen to other people as well as he could.
The conversation with the girl was ending now. They typed their goodbyes, her final texts brimming with gratitude. Then Jarrod clicked his mouse on the “end chat” button.
His shift was over; it was time to go. As he stepped outside into the twilight, he could feel it: The stranger’s burden, lifted even briefly, made him lighter.Call or text Samaritans 24 hours a day at 877-870-HOPE (4673), or visit samaritanshope.org for more information. Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @jrussglobe.