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Lifeline – a safe space for the despairing and suicidal

By Klysha Best

When you hear the word ‘lifeline’ you may think of a safety feature on a boat, a rope that either protects you from falling off or that you can throw at someone who’s drowning.

The non-governmental organisation known as Lifeline is similar in a sense, as it offers a rope in the form of a listening ear to people having thoughts of suicide.

World Suicide Prevention Day was celebrated on September 10, 2023, and Chair and volunteer listener with Lifeline TT, Lucretia Gabriel, aka Lucy, said the sole aim of Lifeline is to befriend the despairing and suicidal through a 24-hour listening service.

Gabriel, who hails originally from England, said Lifeline started with ten people in November 1976.

“Apart from me, the other nine were three priests, one Catholic – Clyde Harvey, one Anglican priest, one Anglican monk, and then five other people who you would have considered pillars of the Church, and then one agnostic/atheist.”

She said, “We realised that we needed to have an NGO to deal with problems that people had in terms of relating to each other, et cetera and we wanted to be as anonymous as we possibly can be.

“In June 1977, we got a letter from the Samaritans in England saying that the founder of it, Edward Chad Varah, a British Anglican priest, social activist, and founder of the Samaritans, was going through to Brazil and they could route him through Trinidad. Would we like to meet with him? And we did.”

Gabriel continued: “We learnt that the Samaritans in England is based on a phone service, and we did not have any access to a phone, not even those clunky ones back then that sat on your desk. We told Varah it was completely unfeasible, and he turns around and he says: ‘Start with what you have.’ So, we did. And what that meant was that we borrowed somebody’s phone and we used it from six in the evening to six in the morning because the suicidal are at their most suicidal at night.”

Lifeline was officially declared open in June 1978, all while using a borrowed phone and did not get its own line until 1985.

They became available 24 hours a day nonstop in 2017.

According to Gabriel, Lifeline is not a hotline, it is a helpline. “We’re very strict because of the stigma against the mentally ill and therefore suicide.”

“The other thing is that people who are suicidal are on a spectrum. It can be from those who just have ideas about it, but they don’t follow through, to those who are in imminent danger of taking their own lives,” said Gabriel.


Suicidal calls increase

She noted that Lifeline’s first concentration is on those who are in imminent danger of taking their own lives.

“So, we will never and I’m making this very clear, we do not have the equipment to record any call anybody makes. We do not keep phone numbers. If the person needs to be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, we very respectfully ask the person to give their permission, because the last thing somebody who is in imminent danger of taking their own lives wants is for anybody to know their business.”

In fact, Gabriel said they would prefer to kill themselves than have anybody know that.

In the business of listening for over 45 years, Gabriel said Lifeline has seen an increase in calls to the helpline. “Five to 10 years ago, 7.3 per cent of our calls were from the highly suicidal…It is now 90 per cent of our calls are from those who could be assessed as being suicidal.”

Gabriel said: “We start the conversation by asking the simplest question – ‘Are you suicidal?’, and the people who are, are relieved to say yes, no, et cetera, it’s no longer a banned word. Which is why we’re going to make it part of our new public thrust to ask the question, are you thinking of killing yourself? Most people don’t want to know. They run for the hills.”


Men and women

So, who is making the most calls to Lifeline? Believe it or not, MEN! Gabriel said men are socialised not to talk about their problems, but they dominate suicide figures.

She said prior to 2010, most of their calls were from women. Now two out of three of their calls are from men because the organisation dared to say that men have emotions.

Women, she said, are more likely to call a helpline. They’re more likely to attempt to commit suicide, but those who die because of the attempt are more men.

“Men do not like to seek help. But they can talk to us, we offer a safe space. You see, a person getting to the point of wanting to kill themselves is a very individual thing. And the basics have not changed. The basics is simply this, that the person gets into a crisis and that crisis makes them feel so isolated from everybody around them that they feel the only solution to their problem is I will kill myself. And when they make that decision, all the pain, all the things float away because they are so disconnected from people around them.”

If you are distressed and need someone to listen to, you can contact Lifeline at 800-5588 or 866-5433.