Suicide prevention photo

Director of Counseling Services Kristin Vernon informs prospective trainee volunteers of opportunities working as a suicide support assistant at Headquarters Counseling Center Tuesday, Jan. 28.

A cluster of KU students gathered around a small table at Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence. Each of them was there for a unique reason, but all shared the desire to work as suicide lifeline support volunteers to help people caught in their darkest, most hopeless moments.

Headquarters is a suicide lifeline that serves the entire state of Kansas. The center held a training information session Tuesday, Jan. 28 to inform students on how to become specially-trained suicide support assistants.

Kristin Vernon, director of counseling services at Headquarters, said the call center is the only one that answers calls from every county in Kansas. 

According to a Jan. 29 agenda item report to the Board of County Commissioners, the county seeks to cooperate with Headquarters to lead the Zero Suicide Initiative in Douglas County. The initiative would help participants “learn how to incorporate best and promising practices to improve care and safety for individuals at risk,” according to the report. 

Headquarters mainly relies on donations from the community to sustain its operations. Through an increased budget and higher call volume in the last two years it was able to expanded its staff from four to 19 people.

Most calls, however, are answered through volunteers.

"Our main focus is volunteers and growing our volunteers who can meet the needs of our callers as they come in," Vernon said. "We advertise and try to pull people in because we also don't want to be so in our own bubble that we're not experiencing the outside world and all of the good that comes from that."

Training Coordinator Jared Austen said volunteers are expected to give a lot of themselves emotionally, but they do it because they choose to help people in the worst point in their lives.  

“Good humans come here to become better humans,” Austen said.

Tuesday's training provided perspective volunteers with a roadmap of their continued education in suicide prevention.

Volunteers are expected to attend three basic sessions that get progressively more intense after each class, Austen said.

The first session is a 3.5 hour shift covering basic counseling skills. The second shift focuses on role-playing, during which experienced counselors give exercises based on their own experiences of life and recovery. The third format includes observation shifts where volunteers shadow a counselor while they answer calls.

The application process is very rigorous to accommodate for the high intensity of calls, Vernon said.

"We get calls as straightforward as 'I'm frustrated with my roommate because I have to do the dishes,' all the way to  'I'm actively feeling suicidal and I attempted to kill myself today', and everything in between," Vernon said.

The final step in the process comes from Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training, which is a two-day experience that offers a deep dive into the issue of suicide.

"Assist allows us to talk openly about thoughts, feelings, attitudes about and experiences with suicide, and creates an open space to be able to do that," Vernon said.

Following the sessions, volunteers are expected to commit 100 hours of time at the call center. 

The call room can be an incredibly high-stress environment, as volunteers stretch themselves to their emotional limits, but Vernon said the overall culture is filled with jokes and smiles.

"We immediately fell in love with the group and the culture,” Vernon said. "We were all different ages and different backgrounds, but we're all there to help people and that made us impossibly close."

Maria Lydic, a junior from Colorado Springs studying psychology, said she wants to volunteer so she can get experience in her field.

"It would be a good experience to appreciate life, learn to cope with things, connect to people and understand problems, which is what life is about anyway," Lydic said.

To learn more about Headquarters Counseling Center or the services they provide you can call 785-841-9900 or text KANSAS to 741741. 

For more resources, visit headquarterscounselingcenter.org

—Edited by Brianna Wessling