Offering Hope and Help to People in Crisis

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Suzanne McNamara is a Kaiser Permanente employee with a passion for helping people during the most difficult times of their lives.

Every Saturday afternoon Suzanne McNamara does something that many of her friends and co-workers can’t fully understand.

She walks into the Contra Costa Crisis Center, puts on a phone headset, and prepares to take calls from complete strangers — some in the throes of so much emotional pain that they’re considering taking their own lives.

McNamara is a former banking executive who was laid off in 2009. In 2012, she took an administrative position with Kaiser Permanente’s Diablo Service Area Imaging Services, and in 2014 she began volunteering 4 hours a week taking crisis hotline calls.

“I was looking for work-life balance, and I have always wanted to help people who have no hope,” McNamara explained. “At the crisis center, I feel like I’m really making a difference.”

A Personal Connection

McNamara’s own life experiences help fuel the passion she feels for helping people in crisis. She wrestled with depression herself, took advantage of talk therapy and medication, and said she feels “very much in control since the diagnosis.”

“Some people are diagnosed with diabetes or cancer. I understand my diagnosis is depression, and gratefully, my disease is in full remission.”

She also knows firsthand how devastating depression can be. In 2002, a dear friend and colleague of hers took his own life after being laid off, going through a depression, and being diagnosed with bipolar disorder.

“Even now I think, ‘How could that have happened?’” she said. Her former colleague left a suicide note saying he didn’t want his wife to suffer being married to someone with his disease.

“Here was a close friend, and I couldn’t help him. That haunted me for quite a while.”

Integral and Amazing Volunteers

Many of the nearly 40 volunteer crisis line counselors at the Contra Costa Crisis Center have also lost close friends or loved ones to suicide. Volunteers go through a rigorous 60-hour training program. They’re coached on communicating in a nonthreatening and nonjudgmental way. They’re trained to be active listeners, and educated on topics including mental illness, homelessness, suicide, and grief.

Volunteer counselors take 20 to 25 percent of the 65,000 suicide-prevention and information referral calls that come through the center each year.

The center’s executive director, Tom Tamura, LMFT, described the center’s volunteers as “absolutely integral and amazing.”

“It takes real compassion to work with people in the throes of the most challenging moments of their lives,” Tamura said.

‘Beyond Grateful That I Could Help’

To do the work, McNamara said she needs to compartmentalize — leaving the rest of the world behind when she starts a volunteer shift, so she can focus on the calls. And leaving the emotion and difficulties she witnesses at the center behind when she heads home.

That doesn’t mean she doesn’t think about the callers afterward. McNamara recalled a woman in crisis who said she felt like everything she touched disintegrated and all the world’s problems were because of her.

“I must’ve talked to her for nearly an hour, trying to get more insight into her problems, reassuring her, and trying to understand how I could help,” McNamara said. “Finally, she said that she hadn’t felt that kind of love and support from anyone in years, and that made me cry. I felt beyond grateful that I could help.”

It’s that kind of fulfilling experience that makes McNamara look forward to her weekly shifts at the crisis center.

“For me, it’s such a tangible way to make a difference in the lives of people who are struggling,” she said. There’s a spiritual aspect to it, and I feel the need to be part of that giving back.”

Editor’s note: We’re interested in hearing and sharing more stories of Kaiser Permanente volunteers. If you know of an employee or physician who regularly volunteers in the community, please send us a note.

If you’re looking for a way to volunteer in your community, go to kpcares.org.

Learn more about Kaiser Permanente’s commitment to breaking the silence about depression at findyourwords.org.

Discussion13 Comments

  1. Jannice Caballero

    Sue, you are AMAZING!! So proud you are a part of our department and KP. Thank you for taking the time to provide this service. You are helping people in their darkest hour.

  2. Sue,

    Thanks for all you do for others! You are an inspiration. Knowing you personally, this kind of unselfishness and dedication doesn’t surprise me at all! You’re the best!

    Sheila

  3. Thanks for taking the time to share from your own life experiences to help others. That’s what the world needs more of, unselfish love.

  4. Sue, I’m so glad to learn about your volunteer work — it is amazing! Thanks for helping others in such a unique and caring way and for being a part of our team.

  5. Charlie Fornaca

    These types of Crisis Hotlines can be life-saving at times. They are great for people who just need to talk to someone, but aren’t in an emergency situation. I wish that the phone numbers for Crisis Hotlines were more widely advertised/displayed. A few years back — I didn’t know they existed for a long time and wish I would have known sooner.

    • Hi Charlie,
      Thank you for sharing your thoughts about this. It sounds like maybe you have this info already. Here are a couple of ways to get help for nearly any situation (homelessness, grief, domestic violence, or a broken heart):

      •Call 1-800-SUICIDE / 1-800-784-2433 Generally used by folks thinking, planning, and even acting on suicidal thoughts.
      •Call 1-800-273-TALK / 1-800-273-8255 Anyone can call this line to talk about any kind of issue.
      •Call 2-1-1 or go to 211.org / This is a database with a wealth of info about Health and Human Services resources in your area.
      Now 211 includes options to select the various lines available. Instead of having to remember the numbers above, dial 211 and there is an option to speak to a crisis counselor.

      There is also text message capability in many areas, including Contra Costa County.
      Go to http://www.crisis-center.org then click on the chat icon.

      Thanks again,
      Sue

  6. Thank you Suzanne for your dedication and your desire to help. I could not imagine what it would be like to answer one of those calls and think you have a very kind heart and love for people. May you be blessed each and every day.

  7. It is people like Suzanne McNamara who make this world a better place. Thank you, Suzanne, for taking time to make a difference in this world.

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