Crisis center fights to save young lives Thousands use 24-hour hot line


She calls at least once a week, a weeping teen-ager who tells a volunteer counselor that her now-dead parents sexually abused her for years, that the memories are still horribly vivid.

And sometimes, before hanging up, the anguished caller says she thinks about suicide.

She survives with the help of trained counselors from the youth crisis hot line at Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center Inc. based in Hickory Ridge. They supplement the therapy and medication she receives elsewhere.

"Her contact with us keeps her from committing suicide or being hospitalized," said Lori Y. James, crisis intervention coordinator for Grassroots, which was started 23 years ago.

The young woman's calls were among the 5,175 from throughout Central Maryland handled by the center's 24-hour hot line from July 1, 1992, to June 30, 1993, making it the busiest of six such hot lines in the state.

Round-the-clock counselors field calls from young people troubled by physical and sexual abuse, family and peer problems, thoughts of suicide and other issues.

A statewide hot-line network was set up in August 1990 at the suggestion of a youth suicide prevention task force formed by Gov. William Donald Schaefer, who was alarmed by the state's record 107 suicides among those under age 24 in 1988.

Nationally, suicide is the third leading cause of death among young people between the ages of 15 and 24.

The program is funded by the state's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which provides Grassroots with $146,000 annually.

The central hot-line number (1-800-422-0009), which can be dialed from anywhere in the state, is connected electronically to the six regional counseling centers. Calls are relayed automatically to the center in the caller's immediate area.

The other hot-line counseling centers are in Frederick, Prince George's, St. Mary's and Montgomery counties, and in Salisbury.

In its first year, the hot line received 6,534 calls statewide, said Henry Westray Jr., state coordinator for youth suicide prevention. From March through August of this year, the most current figures available, the network received 4,224 calls.

"We feel we have saved a lot of lives," said Mr. Westray, who noted that the number of suicides among Marylanders ages 15 to 24 dropped from 80 in 1990 to 77 in 1991, and 67 in 1992.

The number of calls handled by the Grassroots regional center has more than doubled from 2,580 calls in the first year. Those calls came from the entire Baltimore metropolitan area, plus Cecil and Calvert counties.

Best known for its shelter program, Grassroots has about 20 staffers and 30 volunteers working on its youth crisis hot line and another general crisis hot line that predated that program.

About 20 percent of its youth hot-line calls originate in Howard County, where six young people committed suicide in 1990, the most recent year for which county figures were available.

"We try to establish a rapport with the callers and get into what's going on," said call-taker Gregg, who asked that his last name not be used. A paid staffer, he works on the youth hot line, which usually has three people on call round the clock, seven days a week.

Once they establish that relationship, the counselors offer information pertinent to the caller's problem or concern and give proper referral, he said.

Seventy percent of the callers to Grassroots youth crisis hot line are female; 59.5 percent are between the ages of 12 and 17, and 48.6 percent stay on the line between 11 and 20 minutes, Ms. James said. Adults and parents call the hot line, too.

When callers voice thoughts of suicide, counselors advise them that suicide isn't a proper solution to a temporary problem and suggest options.

Sometimes the young callers "think black and white," Ms. James said, not realizing there are alternatives to suicide.

Suicide isn't the only issue that callers raise. Statewide, a surprising number also report homicidal tendencies, said Mr. Westray.

Others voice confusion about their sexual identities, he said, noting that suicide is the leading cause of death among homosexual youths nationally.

Grassroots' officials are spreading the word about the hot line through advertisements and participation in career days at schools. Grassroots also offers walk-in counseling servicesfor teen-agers at its Columbia center.

And last year, the agency started a pilot outreach counseling program at Hammond High School. They meet confidentially with teen-agers each Monday in the school's media center.

"It's kind of a relief that there's somebody else that we can ask for support," said Louise McLaughlin, the high school's guidance counselor.

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