Episode 16: Alan Ross, The Samaritans of New York
Executive Director Alan Ross speaks with Karen and Mary about The Samaritans of New York and the services the organization provides as the only community-based organization in the NYC-Metropolitan area solely devoted to preventing suicide and helping people in crisis.
The non-religious Samaritans–part of the world’s oldest and largest suicide prevention network (with over 400 centers in 42 countries, from Argentina, Bosnia, France and Great Britain to Hong Kong, India, and Zimbabwe)–has been the major provider of suicide prevention, education and awareness services in NYC and environs for almost 30 years with programs that include:
- the only completely confidential 24-hour suicide prevention hotline
- the primary suicide prevention public education program
- support groups for those who have lost a loved one to suicide
- advocacy and community outreach for the at-risk and underserved
Intro Voices [00:00:05] Where do I go? It only happened once. I think I was singled out. The phone calls began about one month ago. What is hazing? Something happened to me when I was younger. I'm worried about my safety. He said he was sorry. Can someone help me? Where can I get help? Can someone help me?
Intro Voices [00:00:31] This is “You Matter”, a podcast for the NYU community developed by the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman [00:00:37] Hi, everyone, and welcome back to “You Matter”, a podcast created to teach, inspire and motivate members of the NYU community who have been victimized in some form or fashion and to identify resources both on and off campus that can help. I am your co-host, Karen Ortman, Assistant Vice President of field operations at the Department of Public Safety and a retired law enforcement professional.
Mary Abzug [00:00:59] And I am your guest co-host Mary Abzug, an undergraduate sociology student completing my independent study with the Victims Services Unit in the Department of Public Safety.
Karen Ortman [00:01:10] Welcome, Mary. It's nice to have you. Today we introduce Alan Ross, executive director, Samaritans Suicide Prevention Center of New York. The Samaritans of New York is the only community based organization devoted to suicide prevention in the New York City metropolitan area. Allan, thank you so much for joining us today on “You Matter”. Please tell our listeners about the Samaritans of New York and the work that you do.
Alan Ross [00:01:38] Well, I'm glad to be here. Samaritans is part of the world's oldest suicide prevention network. It's credited with creating the first suicide hotline in 1952. And though it was created by a minister who was also a psychotherapist, it's a lay, mostly volunteer organization that practices what we call humanistic crisis response work.
Karen Ortman [00:02:06] So what was the catalyst for its creation in 1952? If you know.
Alan Ross [00:02:09] Yeah, I do know, I actually had the opportunity to talk to Reverend Vera before he passed a year ago back in England in the early 50s, when the church and the school system were very closely aligned, and topics to do with sexuality, to do with family health, to matters today that we talk about fairly freely, then were considered taboo. They weren't talked about in the church or in schools. And Reverend Vera was called to a parishioners home early one morning to find a 13 year old girl had committed suicide and upon doing research and trying to determine what had happened, it appears that she had gotten her first period. She was unaware of what had happened. All of a sudden she found herself covered in blood. She thought she had committed some terrible sin or something. And before the sun came up, took her own life. Reverend Vera was quite taken aback by this and announced, he was quite a maverick, that anyone in his parish should come talk to him if they had any problem about anything. As a psychotherapist, he thought he was going to see them one at a time. They came to the parish to meet with him. A lot of people came. And in those days, this is not a disparaging term, but the people who ran the church were referred to as church ladies or tea servers. And as these people were waiting to see the reverend, they would give them a cup of tea and say, “Dear, how are you doing? What's going on? What makes you come here?” And to Reverend Vera's chagrin, and when he told me the story, it was, he was quite taken aback by his discovery that the vast majority of people who came to see him after talking to these women in the church who were great listeners and very responsive, the vast majority of them left and felt better. And so he created a non-religious, non-clinical organization where caring, trained people in communication would provide frontline immediate response and it spread all over the world.
Karen Ortman [00:04:20] Wow. So can you speak to the statistics today and the trends regarding suicide?
Alan Ross [00:04:28] Yes, their statistics are something that are constantly focused around suicide and suicide prevention. Suicide’s been increasing in the United States over the last 10 years. The first five years of that cycle was about a 1 percent increase a year. Over the last five years, it's been about a 2 percent increase a year. And we see this all over the country.
Karen Ortman [00:04:53] Do we know why?
Alan Ross [00:04:55] There's a lot of theories. And the great thing about Samaritans is we live in all worlds. We live in a clinical world, the research world, the lay world, the spiritual world. So different people have different theories.
Karen Ortman [00:05:04] And you help all.
Alan Ross [00:05:05] We help all. We respond to everyone. But the statistics suggest that a large part of the population of people who attempt suicide, have some co-occurring disorder, predisposition towards psychological emotional problems, may actually have a disorder, but it's also environmental and economic.
Karen Ortman [00:05:30] So there's a lot of factors.
Alan Ross [00:05:31] There's more factors, we believe, than can be quantified.
Karen Ortman [00:05:35] So why do you think there is such a stigma associated with mental health issues and and more specifically regarding suicide?
Alan Ross [00:05:43] Well, we ask this question every time we do professional development training and in all our conversations. Suicide scares us, there's no question. some of it is a Western difficulty, Western culture’s difficulty in dealing with death. You can find in different cultures in the East, there's a different approach. When I went through my hotline training at Samaritans, the trainers said, we all walk a tightrope in life. And when someone is depressed or suicidal, it forces us to look down and it scares us. But I think, you know, you also have religious stigma. You have the economic aspect that you can lose insurance, you can lose all kinds of things. And if you look historically, you know, and I'm not expressing an opinion, just talking about history, that children and women were property in the Middle Ages. And if a person was found to commit suicide, their land were seized. They were buried at a crossroads where a crossroad imagery comes from. So horses and wagons would basically remove their existence. So it was much better to say that was an accident or something happened than to talk about the reality. And this has manifested in countless ways in modern culture.
Karen Ortman [00:06:59] So in what ways can your organization provide assistance to someone who's reluctant to get help, but maybe has spoken of suicide to, you know, a friend, a loved one, or maybe to a complete stranger? What does one do in that situation?
Alan Ross [00:07:19] Well. I'm giving simple answers to very complex questions. I want to make a point of that. And Samaritans considers itself part of what we refer to as the caring community, which - it really literally does take a village. So you have clinicians and you have medical professionals and you have religious and spiritual, you have family, you have academic. You have all these different groups and populations, Samaritans is just one very small segment of it. But our strength is the fact that we are completely confidential and anonymous. And that's completely. A lot of organizations say they're confidential, but they have caller I.D. and they're confidential until they decide that they need to take action. It's not a criticism, it's just a different method of operation. We are completely confidential. We're also - our focus is providing immediate and ongoing emotional support. So we say in hotline training, you don't solve other people's problems for them. It's hard enough to handle your own. You don't save another person's life. You help him or her get through a moment, this moment now. So Samaritans is a great frontline, first point of access for people who are resistant, who stigma has impacted, who are afraid of being outed, whether it's a police officer, you have background there, whether it's someone with sexual identity, whether it's a student, whether it's a head of a corporation who doesn't want to have their stuff known. So confidential services are a great point of access for people, especially those who are uncomfortable with, afraid of, whose culture kind of creates a resistance to seeking help now. And it's just one point. And if you're resistant to getting help and you have a good experience connecting with someone who takes you seriously, who doesn't tell you what to do, but listens to what you're going through and provides support. And it's just a point of entry to the helping process.
Karen Ortman [00:09:19] So you and I have spoken several times previous to our conversation today. And during our conversation you mentioned something called the five second rule, which I thought was important to mention today in our conversations. So can you please explain to our listeners what the five second rule is?
Alan Ross [00:09:43] I will. I'd like to position it in a certain context. Samaritan’s major focus is on communication, active listening, providing emotional support. Suicide, to simplify it, one of the most key aspects of reducing suicide is enhancing protective factors which are connections. Could be family, could be friends, could be clinical, could be hotline, a cross section, and reducing access to lethal means. So in the communications aspect, we teach people that most people think they're good listeners, but really they're good at listening to what they want to listen to. So we say people say what they think, what they think they think, what they're trying on for size, what they want you to think, or what just comes to their mind. We hear what we want to hear, what we're prepared to hear, what we think is important or what just catches our attention. There are no absolutes. There is no, quote, truth. It's when someone's thinking and feeling and saying at this time. Far too often and we've been doing professional development and hotline training for 30 years. And I would say, you know, I've been doing a lot of it myself. Ninety nine percent of people, even people with advanced educations, people with tremendous experience, hear what they want to hear or jump to conclusions or move too fast. So the five second rule and it's kind of a sarcastic comment based on Howard Stern when he was on public, not public, but on Terrestrial Radio.
Karen Ortman [00:11:22] Yes, I remember it well.
Alan Ross [00:11:24] And there were so many challenges from the FCC, from the profane, and no matter what your tastes are, what was considered improper. So his station manager put him on a five second delay so the manager could hear what he was going to say before the public did. Well, that's what we practice is hear what you're going to say, say it in your own mind and yet correct it, modify it before it comes out of your mouth, because it's like writing. When you start to write something, usually by the time you finish it, where you started is not what the final piece looks like. That's the great thing about computers, you could take the third paragraph, put it in the first and get rid of it. So we don't - it's not that we're not responsive or effective, but we don't think in an edited version. So, one of the things we teach is watch your tendency to be close ended. Do you understand? Are you feeling better? And it seems harmless enough, but basically it's coercive because there's a fixed point that you should be responding to, it's not, “Are you feeling better?” It's “How are you doing?” Open ended, right. So if you can recognize that you tend to speak first person or close ended or be problem solving, if you put yourself on a five second delay, you can catch yourself from being controlling, directive, outcome oriented to being process, response, emotional focused. Hence that five seconds gives you a lot of time. Doesn't sound like it's that long, but when we teach it to people, it gives you a lot of time to catch yourself and make sure your focus is on the person you're talking to and not on yourself.
Karen Ortman [00:12:57] Are there ways in which you can measure the impact of this five second rule that you've implemented?
Alan Ross [00:13:03] It's more anecdotal or empirical, which is, you're doing a class and you're training everyone. And we do these exercises and everyone's close ended, everyone's first person and everyone's outcome oriented. Basically, I'm trained as a journalist, everybody's doing an interview. And as we work on this and we actually don't allow people to respond until there's a space in time, they become more and more open ended, less and less first person and learn to basically put stop signs up for themselves.
Karen Ortman [00:13:36] Do you provide services for the survivors of suicide?
Alan Ross [00:13:41] Oh, yes. Absolutely. People who lose loved ones to suicide experience all the most tragic and dramatic parts of a personal loss, as well as clinically post-traumatic stress. It's - I mean, you can't compare losses. All losses are dramatic, but you often lose families - we talked about stigma attached to it - you lose family support. People are uncomfortable, you know. Some people in religious and spiritual world will refuse to provide services. There's economic, there's all these terrible, terrible aspects. So Samaritans Safe Place program is for survivors of suicide loss, which is different than someone, a suicide attempt survivor, sometimes in the language that gets confused. So we establish these safe place programs over 30 years ago and we run them in New York City as well.
Karen Ortman [00:14:36] OK. Are there resources for the attempted suicide survivor?
Alan Ross [00:14:39] That - once you get into attempted suicide, then you're in more of a clinical area and Samaritans will help people find what they need but we stay on our side of the street.
Karen Ortman [00:14:49] Gotcha. If a listener wants to reach out to Samaritans, how would they do that?
Alan Ross [00:14:55] They can either, if they want to find resources or information, they could go to SamaritansNYC.org. The hotline is 212-673-3000. That's 212-673-3000. So those are both ways that they could access. I suggest people go to the Website first because there's a lot of information and also to let them know how the hotline operates.
Karen Ortman [00:15:19] OK. Thank you for that.
Alan Ross [00:15:21] Sure.
Mary Abzug [00:15:22] So people in distress are complex and there's no one correct response when trying to help, you kind of touched on this with the five second rule. But that being said, what do you think are some of the important things to say or ways in which to approach someone who is in distress?
Alan Ross [00:15:39] Well, we say at Samaritans, it's not so much what you say, but how you behave. It's, you know, the problems, as you suggested, that people have that lead to depression, distress, trauma, all the different things that can make someone self-destructive or suicidal. They're not singular. We say at Samaritans, nobody is one thing. You're not gay. You're not Latina. You're not a police officer. You're not a business person. You're a multiplicity of many things. So it's not so much what you say, but providing that contact, connection, communication. So the first thing is step back. Don't try to solve a problem. Don't try to fix it. Be in a position where you're allowing people to basically feel grounded, have an opportunity to get their thoughts and feelings out. If you're not listening, you're not going to get very far with someone because it's all about trust. And this is why, whether you're a lay person or a mental health professional, it's very important to remember that helping is a support process, not a fixer.
Mary Abzug [00:16:55] So what would you say some of the risk factors and warning signs of suicidal behavior and depression are that you think people should know about?
Alan Ross [00:17:05] Well, people who are interested in this and everyone really, we talk to public schools. We have fire drills. We should have emotional fire drills. Well, more people are going to have problems tied to emotions and psychological problems. Not to minimize fire, fire is obviously a terrible thing. But more young people are, you know, 18 percent of New York City High School students, it's called the YRBS, Youth Risk Behavior Survey, said they considered suicide in the previous year. Eight percent, actually percented. That's like twenty five thousand students. So the idea that we should know the warning signs and risk factors are important. They’re changes, series of changes in behavior, not which someone considers normal. I'm - my normal sleep pattern is to go to bed at two thirty in the morning. If I'm going to bed at 11 and getting up at 8, I run a nonprofit, I dress casually unless I have to do differently. If all of a sudden all my behaviors are - a significant amount of my behaviors are changing, it should get attention. It could have to do with your appetite. It can have to do with your interest. It can have to do with your focus. It's a much more complex series of things than I would put out here, but it's a series of changes in someone's - that person's normal behavior. A change in their focus, in their interests, in their behaviors. One thing is not it. It's a series of things. And I would like to point out we’re constantly has to teach people warning signs and risk factors. But we believe that if again, you're not approaching someone in the proper way and you're not putting yourself in the back seat instead of the front, it doesn't matter what information you have. I would suggest, we've worked with police. It's the same thing with police. You can know the law. But if you don't know how to deal with people, you're not going to get very far. So this is more of an interpersonal communication, humanistic process at the beginning. We're not talking about clinical work or medical treatment.
Mary Abzug [00:19:06] I've heard from some of my peers at NYU that they believe if they ask someone who they believe to be suicidal, whether they are in fact suicidal, it will increase the likelihood of self-harm. Do you find this to be true?
Alan Ross [00:19:21] I find that belief is very true. It's amazing. We work on a national level, international level with some of the smartest and most experienced mental health professionals you can find. And in private, they will admit that they're hesitant to talk to people. But we need to realize, you don't put thoughts in other people's minds. Every teacher will tell you that, their kid spent a semester trying to plant ideas in someone's mind to get absolutely nowhere. What you may be doing is opening a door that was close. So it scares you because the person seemed calm or didn't seem as dramatic. And now you've asked him, “You said you were feeling overwhelmed. What's going on in your head?” But asking someone if they're suicidal does not plant that thought in their head anymore than asking you if you own a firearm is going to make you go out and shoot somebody.
Mary Abzug [00:20:12] So what are some of the other myths associated with suicide?
Alan Ross [00:20:17] Well, there's there's there's so many of them. One of the ones that comes up a lot working with guidance counselors and social workers is that someone is talking about suicide because they just want attention. And our point is, if you have to threaten to hurt yourself, if you're cutting yourself, if you're planning a suicide attempt, it's not that you just want attention. It's that you need attention. And why are we so frustrated that people are having a hard time dealing with their own lives? We do an exercise in hotline trainings like, “When you were depressed and overwhelmed and thought things would never get better, what was your state of mind? How did you behave? What did you say?” And what we do is we learn that that is part of the process of being depressed and overwhelmed.
Mary Abzug [00:21:08] Well, how can people get involved with Samaritans to support the good work that you do?
Alan Ross [00:21:14] Well, I mean, our primary point of entry and it's kind of fascinating, I didn't start out in this field. I, as a 35 year old, I was actually teaching journalism at NYU continuing ed and I was a journalist and a writer and I joined Samaritans Hotline as a volunteer. Every member of our staff was originally a hotline volunteer and changed their career to work at the place. So the point of entry for almost everything you do at Samaritans is through the hotline, but you have to be 21. And it's a very difficult job. We're always looking for good candidates. But most people who think they're good listeners. Most people who think they know how to help people are not good candidates because they have all these preconceptions and judgments. But we're always looking for good hotline volunteers. And if working at Samaritans doesn't fit your interests or behavior, whether it's Safe Horizon or NAMI, there's so many places if you want to help people.
Karen Ortman [00:22:18] What's NAMI?
Alan Ross [00:22:20] NAMI, National Association of Mental Illness. NAMI Metro in New York City is a wonderful organization that works with people who experience some form of psychological or mental health related issue. So there's there's a lot of places that could use good volunteers, but Samaritans is always looking for good hotline volunteers, but we're very demanding.
Karen Ortman [00:22:41] OK, so you mentioned earlier about the ways in which people can access information through your website, and you also mentioned your phone number, which if you could say it again, would be great.
Alan Ross [00:22:55] Sure. 212-673-3000. That's 212-673-3000. I would like to mention on our Website, SamaritansNYC.org, on the bottom right of every page is a resource guide called the New York City Suicide Prevention Resource Guide that has a cross section of all kinds of services and programs and education opportunities. It's a great resource. It's free. It's got active links that are vetted all the time. So if you know someone who's having problems, are you yourself? Whether you're looking to learn more or get involved. This is a great place to start.
Karen Ortman [00:23:35] Does Samaritans go out into New York City community to provide education?
Alan Ross [00:23:41] Absolutely. It's one of our primary goals where we're one of the primary educators for the New York City Public School System, teaching guidance counselors and social workers. We work with most organizations, Safe Horizon, all groups that work with what we would refer to as at risk populations. And we train them in the behavioral communication aspect of crisis response and suicide prevention and intervention.
Karen Ortman [00:24:04] Safe Horizon’s is a great organization.
Alan Ross [00:24:06] Fantastic organization, actually where I started. The first program I ever did. Safe Horizon was originally called Victim Services. And the first training I did I don't know how many years ago was for their elder abuse project. And that got me involved in their work.
Karen Ortman [00:24:22] They were guests on our podcast as well.
Alan Ross [00:24:24] Remarkable organization.
Mary Abzug [00:24:26] OK, Alan, is there anything else you want to share with our listeners about Samaritans?
Alan Ross [00:24:31] Well, about Samaritans and suicide prevention in general. The first thing, don't be afraid to connect with someone, respond to someone, even if they don't open up or talk. Knowing that someone is interested, knowing that someone cares is a very important, quote, protective factor. It helps provide support, it helps someone get grounded. Don't hesitate, don't be - don't harass someone. Don't be adversarial. Don't be a know it all but show interest, even if it's just sitting down and being quiet and having your presence there. And if in doubt, check it out. So don't hesitate to do that. And you know, the Samaritans and its volunteers are one aspect of a great caring community in New York City. It's 24 hours a day, seven days a week. The phone number is 212-673-3000. That's 212-673-3000. We should remind people that there's Samaritans, there's New York City Well, there is a gay men's health crisis. There's all these wonderful organizations. And again, if you go to the Samaritans Resource Guide at SamaritansNYC.org on the bottom right corner and click the resource guide, you'll find countless organizations that you can go to for help, chat lines, text lines, hotlines, all kinds of services.
Karen Ortman [00:25:52] Well, thank you very much.
Alan Ross [00:25:53] You're very welcome.
Mary Abzug [00:25:54] Thank you so much to our guest, Alan Ross, and to all of our listeners for joining us for today's episode of “You Matter.”
Karen Ortman [00:26:02] If any information presented today was triggering or disturbing. Please feel free to contact the wellness exchange at 212-443-9999. You can also get in touch with NYU use Department of Public Safety and their victim services unit by calling 212-998-2222.
Mary Abzug [00:26:23] For more podcasts like these, you can find us by searching for “You Matter” on Apple podcast or Google Play.