- The Washington Times - Friday, March 10, 2006

Alone in his car outside a Metro station, the man held a gun to his head and threatened to pull the trigger.

Communicating with police by cell phone, he wavered between calling out for help and hanging up as he prepared to end his life.

Police officers were unable to determine his exact location and decided it was time to call in backup: CrisisLink.

CrisisLink is a 24-hour mental health and suicide-prevention hot line based in Arlington that fields more than 20,000 calls annually from around the region.

The nonprofit hot line connects the elderly, the hungry, the homeless and the jobless to 4,400 community resources that can help them — or sometimes just offers a listening ear.

Fueled primarily through intensely trained volunteers, CrisisLink never offers advice. Volunteers listen patiently, helping callers to identify the root problem and to craft a solution.

“We get calls about every possible kind of crisis you might imagine and some you can’t,” says Executive Director Carol Loftur-Thun.

“Our mission is to save lives, prevent tragedies, to give vital support to those facing life crises, drama, suicide and to connect people to resources to empower them to help themselves.”

The small nonprofit began taking calls on teen drug and relationship problems six hours a day in a church basement in 1969.

More than a half-million calls later, the majority of crises involve mental health. But CrisisLink also handles abuse-, depression-, employment-, hunger-, and physical health-related calls. About 12 percent are suicide-related, well above the national call center average of 3 percent and more than most psychologists, organizers say.

Overall call volume has jumped more than 50 percent since 2003.

CrisisLink teams up with local emergency medical, police and fire departments on emergency situations.

The group’s CareRing program fosters independent living by placing daily calls to disabled, elderly and homebound persons who need friendly reminders or check-ins.

A community training program preps students, police, health professionals and others in depression awareness, active listening and hostage negotiation.

CrisisLink also answers calls from the Darkness to Light hot line, which helps adult survivors of sexual abuse, and Into Safe Arms, which prevents baby abandonment.

The hot line made an impact during District-specific crises, including the 2002 sniper killings and September 11 attacks.

On September 11, 2001, CrisisLink took 6,000 calls within 48 hours: a reflection of the isolation many in urban areas feel, organizers say. Many feared another attack.

Miss Loftur-Thun estimates the hot line saved the region about $5 million last year in emergency resources by de-escalating situations that otherwise might have led to a 911 call.

“There’s a lot of isolation and anxiety, especially in this area with all the [terrorism] alerts, anthrax and now we have avian flu,” Miss Loftur-Thun said. “Having somebody who can really listen to you and really hear you, sometimes that makes all the difference.”

CrisisLink again showed its muscle during Hurricanes Isabel and Katrina, when it linked with national hot lines to field calls from victims and their loved ones from across the country.

It continues to receive calls from victims in New Orleans seeking resources.

The hot line earned an “outstanding service” award from the American Association of Suicidology, a national hot line accrediting body. CrisisLink also has won a “best nonprofit” award from the Arlington Chamber of Commerce.

CrisisLink’s handpicked volunteers undergo a rigorous interview screening and training, which includes role-playing and on-the-job training. Only 25 percent of applicants are accepted as volunteers.

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