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A Tough Call

Counselors tell of night they helped prevent a suicide

February 6, 2010
By AMANDA WHISTLE, The Leader-Herald

JOHNSTOWN - A pistol being cocked, the rattling of a bottle of pills: The sounds coming over the telephone line were chilling.

The two-hour phone call interrupted what might otherwise have been a typical evening for two counselors at a local group home, and after it was over the two were praised for saving a former resident from the brink of suicide.

On Jan. 25, Counselor Erik Scott, 46, was getting ready to administer medication to residents at the MICA house - the Mentally Ill and Chemically Addicted program residence operated by Catholic Charities of Fulton and Montgomery Counties at 228 N. Perry St.

Article Photos

The Leader-Herald/Bill Trojan

At the Catholic Charities group home in Johnstown on Friday, counselors Meagan Coons, left, and Erik Scott talk about the night of Jan. 25, when they worked together to save a former resident who called and and threated to kill himself.

Fellow counselor Meagan Coons, 20, answered the telephone in the office around 7:30 p.m.

The caller was a man both counselors knew at one time as "jovial, animated and fun-loving." A recovering alcoholic, the man had been sober for a year before he relapsed, drinking hard liquor for two days straight before he decided to call his former counselors and residents at the MICA house.

The man had moved into the MICA house April 1 and celebrated his year of sobriety during his six months there. He had previously been sober for a 12-year stretch.

Fact Box

Suicide prevention hotlines

The state Office of Mental Health lists the following suicide crisis help lines for people in this area:

St. Mary's Mental Health Hotline (local):

(518) 842-9111.

National Suicide Prevention Lifeline:

1-800-273-8255.

"It's really hard when someone has that kind of clean time," Scott said. "They're embarrassed if they have to come back, and it's hard work. It's learning to live again."

The conversation between the man and Coons began as he told her he wanted to speak with everyone at the house "one last time," she said. She didn't realize immediately that suicide was on his mind.

The conversation progressed into details about how he was feeling, and eventually he cocked a handgun over the phone and rattled a container of antipsychotic Seroquel pills he had stored with the intent to overdose.

Coons silently alerted Scott, and he said he could hear the former resident yelling at Coons in drunken wails. The man refused to call the suicide hotline that Coons suggested.

"He literally wailed," Coons said. "It was obvious he was hurting."

She kept him on the phone by talking about camping, reminiscing about good times they had at the house and singing silly songs he had made up about the medication he took.

"He would start laughing and say, 'I miss you guys so much,' and then suddenly start screaming 'I don't want this pain anymore,"" Coons said.

Scott called 911 as the man begged Coons not to call police and told her he would hunt her down and kill her if she did, she said.

Scott eventually connected with police in Troy, where the man was living, and told them where to locate him. But the man was no longer living with his ex-wife at the address Scott had on file.

Police were able to find the building he was living in because his ex-wife had reported stolen a van he was driving. Officers didn't know his apartment number, however. Scott spoke with the man over the phone and asked him questions that would reveal which apartment he was in so police could find him.

Suddenly, Coons said, the line went silent. She worried he had hung up and the officers hadn't arrived in time. She stayed on the line for five minutes, waiting.

Twenty minutes later, a dispatcher called Scott's cell phone and told him they had the man in safe custody.

"I literally got off the phone and said, 'Thank you, Lord," Scott said.

Coons said she was worried because while Scott was on the phone with police, he began to cry.

"I didn't know what the outcome was," she said.

Scott said he went home that night and awoke every two hours, still wired from adrenaline.

Coons, who was the overnight resident counselor that evening, said she cried and thought a lot about what could have happened if the circumstances hadn't aligned as they did.

Coons and Scott's supervisor praised their efforts.

"They did a tremendous job," said MICA Program Director Tressa Rossi. "Not only were the two of them working on the phone with the gentleman, they were also able to maintain the structure of the residence program, work with police and maintain safety."

Nine residents live at the house, which serves as a safe place and springboard toward a new life for addicts and people with other mental health issues.

Both counselors attended a suicide prevention and awareness seminar in October at the Hamilton-Fulton-Montgomery Board of Cooperative Educational Services and said that training helped them stay calm because they knew what to do.

"We knew to keep him on the phone and active," Scott said. "That training kicked in right away."

Both agreed such situations can't be completely planned for, and training for their occupations is "mostly on the job," Coons said.

"We can't be surprised when things like this happen," Coons said.

Both Coons and Scott said they had discussed such a scenario in the past, and Scott said he had always wanted to save someone's life.

"I understand that what we do here everyday is helping," Scott said. "But I always wanted to push the lady out from in front of the bus."

The man Coons counseled over the phone now is living on a mental health floor in a nearby hospital, for now. He has since called the counselors and thanked them for saving his life.

"I've always thought it [would be] the greatest blessing," Scott said of saving a life.

Rossi said both counselors seemed shaken after the evening.

"That kind of thing frazzles your own nerves," Rossi said. "Even if you're in a job where you deal with it frequently, it still hits your nerves and feelings."

Both staff members were recognized for their efforts at Catholic Charities' recent Mid-Winter Dinner.

Amanda Whistle can be reached by e-mail at montco@leaderherald.com.

 
 

 

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