Contact Community Services (Contact) was created in 1971 to offer help and hope to those struggling and in crisis. It seems sadly apropos that Contact is celebrating 50 years of service during 1) the worst pandemic our community and world has ever experienced and 2) the worst state-to-state invasion Europe has experienced since World War II. In this time of global struggle and crisis, the need for help and hope has never been greater.
I had the good fortune of becoming Contact’s third executive director in September 2006. I still remember the letter I wrote to the staff and board during my first week. The most important thing I remember saying is “I envision an embracing community where children and families have access to all the healthcare, social, emotional and mental health services they need to overcome life’s barriers. I hope to guide Contact to a leadership role in making this vision a reality. I promise to do my absolute best.”
I wish I could say we have achieved that vision but in truth, I now know, that is an ideal we will always be working toward. Still, I and my colleagues past and present at Contact, have tried to maintain that promise of doing our absolute best every single day of every single year over these last 50 years.
When I became executive director, I was aware of Contact’s crisis hotline. But it never actually hit home to me that the Hotline was, at times, a literal life saver. One of the most important goals for Contact during the 16 years I have been executive director, has been educating our community that Contact is a safe place to reach out for anyone in crisis and at risk of suicide. Contact didn’t acknowledge itself as a suicide prevention and crisis management organization in 2006. Instead, Contact’s mission was framed as creating positive change for individuals. I believe Contact did this partly because the mission was and continues to be prevention. But, in 2006, there was also an understanding of the stigma and fear associated with the word ‘suicide’. Contact also works to prevent the stigma often associated with an individual having mental health challenges. To me the stigma associated with suicide is akin to the stigma that was, at one time, associated with cancer or AIDS. Most people in 2006 and even today are afraid to ask someone, “Are you thinking about killing yourself?”, whereas that one question may save a life. Contact’s staff and volunteers educate the community that there is no shame in acknowledging one has mental health issues and a life touched by mental health issues can be as fulfilling and rewarding as one that has the good fortune of mental wellbeing.
Contact has had a staff member or trained volunteer on the Crisis Hotline every hour of every day of every week of every month of every year since 1971, that’s 444,360 hours providing help and hope to those in crisis over the last 50 years. Staff and volunteers understand those who reach out to Contact sometimes simply need a compassionate, caring person to listen to them and help them determine their own next steps. They offer hope to these individuals and help to find the information, resources, skills and supports they need. They also understand those who reach out are sometimes struggling and in crisis and need the hope that there can be a positive outcome to their struggles. They understand their job is essential in supporting those who are in crisis. They also recognize there are times when their helping actions are lifesaving. No one experiencing a mental health crisis and struggling to decide if life is worth living should do that in silence or alone. While staff and volunteers often assist in a crisis their support is primarily about prevention. They understand helping someone out of a crisis means empowering them to prevent future crises. They understand the greatest hope of all is prevention.
When I became executive director of Contact in 2006, I was familiar with Contact’s school programs. I had partnered with Contact on several projects when I had previously led an educational consulting firm. I was aware of Contact’s emphasis on prevention and on developing the social and emotional strengths of youth. One of Contact’s most important goals during the last 16 years, has been helping youth, families, and schools understand and navigate the continuum of mental health and mental health challenges. Contact is also working with schools to prevent the stigma often associated with youth experiencing mental health issues or speaking of suicide. They are also educating youth and families that there is no shame in acknowledging one has mental health challenges and their life can be just as fulfilling and rewarding as one who doesn’t.
Today, the School Services Division implements award winning prevention and intervention programs beginning in pre-kindergarten and continuing through high school graduation. These best practice programs include the: PAX Good Behavior Game, PAX Tools, Primary Project, Middle School Youth Development Specialists, Student Assistance Program, and most recently, Suicide Safety in Schools.
As I move toward my retirement in April 2022 and as Contact celebrates 50 years of providing help and hope, I have this final thought to share with the new executive director, staff and volunteers at Contact Community Services, “I envision an embracing community where children and families have access to all the healthcare, social, emotional, and mental health services they need to overcome life’s barriers. I hope Contact plays a leadership role in making this vision a reality.”