Spreading a Message of Hope to End Suicide
Nancy Salamy is trying to end suicide one call, text, and program at a time.
Photo by Lance Yamamoto
Most mornings, Nancy Salamy greets each staff member and volunteer in her Oakland office. As the executive director of Crisis Support Services of Alameda, she makes it her aim to get to know each and every one of them. She often skips pleasantries or commentary about things like traffic or the weather. There’s too little time. She’d rather hear about their bucket lists, or something they’re passionate about. Perhaps it’s a subtle way of reminding herself, and those around her, that life is better than its counterpart — even it doesn’t feel like it at times. Nearly three decades of experience in suicide prevention have taught her that forging human bonds, however small, can have a big impact.
For the last 15 years, Salamy, an Alamedan, has served as the director of the Crisis Support Services of Alameda, a private nonprofit that offers various suicide prevention services. She oversees a variety of public and donor-funded programs that act as a lifeline for residents in despair. The agency’s flagship program is a 24-hour suicide prevention hotline that has been open for more than half a century. In recent years, Salamy has focused on expanding the agency’s influence by adding a texting line as well as various other community education and counseling programs.
On a typical day, her staff of volunteers fields more than 200 calls from community members in distress. Some are as young as 11, and others are in their 90s. Many of them are considering suicide or are actively suicidal. And while people call for all sorts of reasons — a relationship gone south, chronic depression, or housing uncertainty — they share a common thread: an abiding sense of alienation, an absence of connection. “People feel isolated and aren’t able to talk about what’s going on in their lives,” Salamy says.
According to the CDC’s latest data, suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. And it’s on the rise. California has the fourth lowest suicide rate in the country, and in Alameda County, it’s lower still. But for Salamy, one death is too many, which is why she emphasizes to her staff, volunteers, and public officials with whom she meets that until someone dies, there is always hope.
Salamy, who is 65, keeps a vigorous schedule. Between meetings with clinicians, legislators, public agencies, and those whom she supervises at the agency, she only occasionally works the phone lines. But like most of those who either work or volunteer at the agency, that’s where she started.
Before she moved to Bay Area to study counseling, in the early 1980s, Salamy worked in interior design in New York City. Her friends and family had encouraged her to go into counseling, but it wasn’t until a series of tragedies that it became a vocation. After a miscarriage, she learned she would never have kids. Not long after, a close friend died of cancer. There were other tragedies, too.
During those months, it seemed like her whole world was in a cloud of grief. “I saw the impact that these events have on everyone, how devastating it can be. Everyone is impacted by grief,” she says. “I wanted to make a difference.”
She interned at the Crisis Support Services, which at that time was a call center in the basement of a church. But before long, she was working there full time. The agency itself was founded in 1966 by a barber and pastor. The first calls were taken in his barbershop after hours. At that time, suicide prevention centers, namely hotlines, were cropping up all over the country. The first was founded in Los Angeles a decade earlier by Edwin Shneidman, one of the founders of suicidology in America. Shneidman’s work on suicide prevention was combined with an emerging idea of peer counseling — the revolutionary idea that laypeople could be trained to effectively counsel their peers.
Over the years, Crisis Support Services has used a small staff and an army of volunteers to expand its programs beyond its initial crisis support hotline. The overwhelming majority of those volunteers have been touched by suicide in some way or other. In recent years, Salamy has overseen the addition of several new programs. They have added a text line, in hopes of reaching one of the most vulnerable demographics, teens and adolescents, in addition to a variety of counseling and community education programs. In the foyer of the office are posters advertising various support groups. Salamy has also brokered contracts with first responder and law enforcement agencies, training them to deal with situations that involve suicide.
Recently, the agency became a participant in a national initiative called Zero Suicide, an aspirational commitment to ending suicide. As part of the initiative, Salamy says she is focused on expanding the services of her agency even more. For decades, agencies have faced several limitations. Namely, people need to know they exist for them to use the services. To counteract that limitation, she has reached out to psychiatric hospitals, prisons, and other institutions to offer training to staff and follow-up support to inmates or those who have been hospitalized after a suicide attempt.
In the meantime, Salamay wants you to know a simple fact: Most people who consider or even attempt suicide — and survive — go on to live normal lives. She wants you to know that there’s always hope.
If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En Español: 1-888-628-9454; deaf and hard of hearing: 1-800-799-4889.) If you live in Alameda County, contact Crisis Support Services of Alameda County at 1-800-309-2131.