Valley Breeze

The Valley Breeze Pawtucket 06-24-2020

The Valley Breeze Newspapers serving the Northern Rhode Island towns of Cumberland, Lincoln, Woonsocket, Smithfield, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, North Providence, Scituate, Foster, and Glocester

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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 pro- grams available now will start going away, says the director of the sui- cide 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 cri- sis. 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 fol- lowed 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 sui- cidal restaurant owners. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and rules on social dis- tancing, The Samaritans organiza- tion 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 work- ing 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 sui- cidal, 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 big- gest worry as the pandemic hit was for those "daily supported call- ers" 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 get- ting 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 ques- tions 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 vol- unteers by weekly email newsletter and opportunities to refer program questions through the deputy war- den. Using a Champlin grant, the orga- nization 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 informa- tion 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. The Valley Breeze is committed to bringing quality news stories like this one free to our readers. You can be a huge part of this local journalism suc- cess story by making a one-time or monthly contribution to what we do every week at valleybreeze.com/support. Thank you as always for reading. 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