“I've seen lonely times when I could not find a friend. But I always thought that I'd see you again.”
James Taylor’s 1970 song “Fire and Rain” sings out a message to a friend that committed suicide. On average one person dies by suicide every 16.2 minutes. According to the American Association of Suicidology, New Mexico was recently ranked No. 1 in the US for suicides from 2018 to ’19 data. Each suicide intimately affects immediate family members, relatives, neighbors, co-workers, friends, fellow students and healthcare providers. It can be difficult to talk about our problems with family and friends.
In 1970 a University of New Mexico student in distress tried unsuccessfully to find help one night. Feeling hopeless and alone, he ended his life. A group of students and professors decided to start a crisis center where anyone could call to talk about whatever was on their mind. Agora Crisis Center began as one of the first crisis centers of its kind in the United States. Since then nearly 5,000 volunteers have helped to operate the crisis line, and hundreds of thousands of callers have been helped.
For the past 50 years, Arora Crisis Center, located on the UNM Campus, has supported those in crisis to face and understand their demons rather than trying to escape them through suicide. Their certified volunteer crisis hotline specialists provide compassionate, non-judgmental help for anyone in need of emotional support. Callers to the helpline include teens who call to talk about bullying, college students call to talk about school, parents call to talk about their children, elders call to talk about loneliness and many others. Agora volunteers won't tell you how to solve your problem, but they will help you figure out what options you might have.
Agora director Molly McCoy Brack said the center takes a wide variety of helpline calls from people of all issues on their helpline. “People call us from all over the country. And sometimes they call because they're just having a bad day, or they need some resources, or they may be going through some kind of personal crisis or trauma which could include thinking of suicide.”
McCoy Brack said, statistically, the group with the most dramatic increase in suicide over the last decade was baby boomer women. “There is an interesting fact that came out; around the world, in the last few decades, the suicide rates have gone down about 30 percent. In the United States, it has gone up by 3 percent.” The CDC and the World Health Organization have a category of deaths classified as deaths of despair. This includes things like suicide and drug overdoses. Those numbers have risen so dramatically that the life expectancy in the U.S. is now lower than it was during World War I. In 2017 suicide was the ninth leading cause of death in New Mexico, the second leading cause of death by age group for persons 5 to 34 years of age and the fourth leading cause of death by age group for persons 35 to 44 years of age.
“Loneliness plays a huge factor in suicide when people are feeling more disconnected from each other.” McCoy Brack said. “And of course, in 2020, COVID-19—that's not just as a certain segment of the population. In the years that I've been doing this work, New Mexico has always been the top five. The other states are Montana, Wyoming, Nevada, Alaska.” McCoy Brack said these states tend to have a lot of rural communities, and difficulty in accessing services can play into statistics. “There is increased accessibility to firearms, which are the most common way that people die by suicide.” New Mexico’s very high rate of poverty is another factor that plays into suicide, says McCoy Brack.
Kyle Dougherty, associate director at Agora, was an undergrad at UNM working in security for the dorm rooms when he got a call to do a wellness check. He found a girl threatening suicide. “I sat down and listened to her for a couple hours, and at the end of that exchange, she told me that I had really helped her.” After that interaction he contacted Agora and immediately signed up for the training class for volunteers. “It just felt like the right thing to do, helping people like that. And I fell in love with it immediately.”
Since then Dougherty has had just about every role at Agora Crisis Center. When the associate director left the organization, Molly McCoy Brack offered the position to him. “I feel like this is the most rewarding thing I've ever done in my life. This is the place I'm supposed to be.” Dougherty said training to become a Volunteer Certified Crisis Hotline Specialist is currently offered on line. Those who are interested in volunteering can submit an application form online at their website, agoracares.com.
Agora’s services include their help line, online emotional support (chat), information and referrals, volunteer opportunities and community training workshops. Volunteers will talk to anyone, anywhere, about whatever is on your mind as part of the network of National Suicide Prevention Lifelines across the country. “If you dial 1-800-273-TALK or 1-800-SUICIDE, it will route you to whatever crisis line is closest to you. And then, if they can't take the call, it will bounce and go to another crisis line. You always get an answer. We are always here to help,” McCoy Brack explained. She said that the FCC just recently approved a new three-digit number for a suicide line that people can call for support will take effect in 2022.
The 24/7 Lifeline Crisis Chat Agora provides as part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network has recently nearly tripled the amount of chats. People log into the nationalized line by website and then they are routed to whichever Crisis Center is available next. “We started doing chat about 10 years ago, in an attempt to reach more youth. It has an added level of anonymity, and also I think that a lot of young people have grown up in a culture where they're used to texting with each other, and they're just more comfortable with texting conversations,” McCoy Brack said.
If you or someone you know is experiencing deep feelings of worthlessness, loneliness, grief, domestic violence, abuse, depression and any other serious challenges in your life that seem monumental and just need to talk, or are considering suicide as a way out, there is help though Agora’s helpline. They won't ask your name—only your zip code and a few other anonymous questions which help them secure funding. Their service is confidential and offered free of charge. They can be reached at (505) 277-3013, 866-HELP-1-NM or 800-273-TALK (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline).