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.