Panichas: Samaritans preparing for rough road ahead

Panichas: Samaritans preparing for rough road ahead

Suicide prevention efforts will soon take on added urgency

PAWTUCKET – Like life-altering events of the past, the 9/11 attacks, the Station nightclub fire of 2003, and the financial crisis of 2008, the mental and emotional impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic may not fully hit until months from now, says Denise Panichas of The Samaritans of Rhode Island.

“I think it’s going to be worse in the fall,” she says of when some of the deeper impacts of this pandemic, such as dealing with bankruptcies and the ongoing effects of COVID-19, might arrive and be felt the most.

And it will be September or so when many of the temporary programs available now will start going away, says the director of the suicide prevention organization based on Park Place, making it all the more important to be ready to go with ways to help when fall comes.

In May, the Rhode Island Foundation announced $3.7 million in grants to help Rhode Islanders cope with the behavioral health challenges of the COVID-19 crisis. The grants, the first from the COVID-19 Behavioral Health Fund at the Foundation, went to more than three dozen organizations, including The Samaritans, which received $50,000.

On March 11, Brown University halted all student volunteerism at The Samaritans, which was followed by Rhode Island’s stay-at-home advisories. The Samaritans instantly lost 38 volunteers from Brown, making it impossible to maintain service.

There is no way to measure how many calls have been missed since then, said Panichas, during a time of year that is traditionally highest for suicides.

On March 16, restaurants closed and by the next week, Panichas received personal calls about suicidal restaurant owners.


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In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and rules on social distancing, The Samaritans organization is using various technologies to increase access to its listening line. As they’ve rebuilt capacity for the line and slowly reopened lines over the past weeks with 28 volunteers back answering the phones, they’ve been asking for patience. While many agencies made the choice to go to an expensive new phone system to deal with the impact of the pandemic and people working from a distance, Panichas said the Samaritans had no choice but to work through the technology to right an upended system.

Most people who call are not suicidal, said Panichas, they just need to speak to a caring, empathetic listener when family, friends and professionals are not available. No one needs the suicide hotline until they need it, she emphasized.

According to Panichas, her biggest worry as the pandemic hit was for those “daily supported callers” who contact the hotline every day. It may be hard to believe, she said, but some of them have called every day since it first began back in 1977. The positive in this new reality is that there have been new resources added for people to call in the short-term, she said, but many of those will disappear when the expected deeper crisis hits in the fall.

The money from the R.I. Foundation is important, Panichas said, especially with the art gallery remaining closed and chances for fundraisers dissolved.

In many ways, she said, the group’s website, www.samaritansri.org , has replaced the hotline, with mobile data saying people are getting their answers through new resources posted there.

“Everything is new, we have to rethink it,” she said.

The social and economic impact of the pandemic required more than a passive, listening line, stated the group in its grant application. Working with various partners, the organization updated its website banners to address fielded questions and has initiated limited call-forwarding to trained senior volunteers.

For as long as funding allows, per the request of the ACI, support is provided to its prison lifeline volunteers by weekly email newsletter and opportunities to refer program questions through the deputy warden.

Using a Champlin grant, the organization is restoring the historic 1827 Baker-Hanley House it calls home, but that work has also been slowed by the pandemic.

The mission of the Samaritans is to be the agency of choice for Rhode Islanders seeking information related to suicide prevention, support and education. According to Panichas, there is no similar organization in the state.

The crisis hotline is 401-272-4044 or 800-365-4044.