- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 28, 2008

“I think maybe if I had talked to someone like you, I wouldn’t have done it.” The sad young woman who said these words in 1906 died from the poison she had swallowed. But her words became a clarion call for suicide intervention, and today, countless lifesaving services are available for people struggling with life or death decisions about themselves.

September is “Suicide Prevention Month,” so officials with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) recently gave a report on its National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (800/273-TALK) and Web site (www.suicide preventionlifeline.org).

Last year, more than 500,000 people sought help for suicide-related issues, psychologist and SAMHSA public health adviser Richard McKeon told me. Hot-line callers are quickly connected to counselors in a nearby crisis center, he said.

Calling a hot line often makes a difference. A 2007 study of 14 hot lines, for instance, found that significant numbers of people became more hopeful, resourceful and confident - and less interested in suicide - after talking with a counselor, said Lanny Berman, executive director of the American Association of Suicidology. Another study of eight crisis centers found similar improvements among callers, plus evidence that they still felt better weeks later.

Modern suicide prevention has its origins in a long-ago but familiar tragedy. In 1906, the Rev. Henry Marsh Warren was a 39-year-old Baptist minister who led New York’s Central Park Baptist Church and — more importantly — held religious services in hotel lobbies, George Howe Colt wrote in his 2006 book, “November of the Soul: The Enigma of Suicide.”

“One evening, a 20-year-old girl at a Broadway hotel called the manager and asked to speak to a minister,” Mr. Colt wrote. The hotel manager knew Mr. Warren from his hotel services but couldn’t reach him.

The next morning, a hotel maid “found the woman unconscious, an empty bottle marked ‘poison’ nearby. She was rushed to Bellevue Hospital, where Warren went to her bedside,” Mr. Colt wrote. “The girl told Warren she was from a small West Coast town, had been jilted by her boyfriend, and had come to New York, where nobody knew her, to kill herself. She had wanted to talk to a minister first, she said, but had been too miserable to wait.

“‘I think maybe if I had talked to someone like you,’ she told Warren, ‘I wouldn’t have done it.’ Not long afterward, she died.

“In his next sermon to the Parish of All Strangers, the shaken Warren described the girl and cried, ‘I wish that all who believed that death is the only solution to their problems would give me a chance to prove them wrong.’ He placed an ad in the newspaper urging anyone considering suicide to call on him.

“In the following week, 11 people appeared. All of them admitted they had decided to kill themselves, yet all were eager to pour out their despair. Warren listened. All 11 eventually abandoned their plans.”

Mr. Warren left his pastorate to focus on suicidal people and their families, and created the National Save A Life League to handle the stream of people who began to seek him out.

Mr. Warren was unusual because he treated suicidal people with “human sympathy and understanding” instead of as criminals, insane or “doomed to suicide by heredity,” Mr. Colt wrote. The reverend certainly saw mental illness in some cases, but in two-thirds of the cases, people just needed someone to talk to, plus maybe a bus ticket home or a hot meal. As a man of faith, he offered spiritual food as well.

In 1979, when I was a young newspaper reporter in Manhattan, I wrote about the National Save A Life League. It was a shoestring operation by then, and only one of the calls I heard on my visits was a genuine suicide call; the rest were about UFO invasions, alcoholism and overdue college papers.

But Mr. Warren’s creation of the league was pivotal because it led the way for compassionate, comprehensive suicide prevention. Moreover, by the time Mr. Warren died in 1940, he and his volunteers had personally saved 34,000 lives, Mr. Colt wrote.

• Send e-mail to cwetzstein@ washingtontimes.com.