Memphis Crisis Center: A Lifeline to Hope

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by Chris Reeder-Young

CW/TW Please note: this article discusses depression and suicide and may trigger a strong
emotional response for some. If you feel triggered, please contact the Memphis Crisis Center
at 901.274.7477 for help.

What is the MCC?
Compassionate listening. Human contact. Collaborative problem solving. The Memphis Crisis Center (MCC) began as the Suicide Intervention Service in 1970 when a small group of dedicated mental health professionals saw an urgent need for a 24/7 point of contact for patients struggling with suicide. Over the years the volunteer telephone-based service has expanded to handle a full array of crisis situations, serving as a lighthouse for all who need help.

Leadership and Programming at MCC Executive Director Mike LaBonte’s serendipitous journey led him to the doors of the MCC in 2000. As a former student activist he was interested in service-oriented work. He and Co-Director Terry Barnes have been affiliated with the agency for more than 20 years providing direction and vision for the important work of the center.

LaBonte stated, “We will be celebrating our 50th anniversary in 2021, marking the date we became officially incorporated. During the ‘60s and early ‘70s, crisis hotlines began springing up in many communities as part of grassroots community-based effort to address suicide and other mental health issues. We were the local pioneer. We originally focused on suicide in our early years, but we have expanded to include a full array of programs to serve the needs of as many people as possible.

“Along with the main crisis line, we administer the community’s Call4Kids Hotline, the HIV Care Line, the Elder Lifeline and serve as the local affiliate of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and the National Veterans Hotline. The MCC also partners with the Crime Victims and Rape Crisis Center providing after hours and weekend call coverage.

“The MCC is here for anyone in distress. Our vision is no one facing a crisis has to face it alone.”

Mike LaBonte, Memphis Crisis Center Executive Director

Volunteers at MCC
“Volunteers are the lifeblood of the center,” LaBonte says. “We could not provide this important service without them. We recruit community members, train them in crisis intervention, and they go on to actually staff our hotlines. We are probably the most community-based mental health service around because we actively engage the community in its own safety net.”

“There are a lot of misconceptions about what we do,” LaBonte continued. “It’s not just suicide. A majority of people who call us are lonely, sad, or facing some sort of life challenge. We are a full service crisis hotline here for anyone in distress or in need of emotional support. We provide empathic listening, collaborative problem solving if needed, and community referrals for those needing longer-term professional help.”

LaBonte describes telephone interventions as a form of ‘emotional first aid.’ Volunteers first take the time to compassionately connect with the caller. “Although every situation is unique, there is a basic geography to the intervention process. The first step,” LaBonte says, “is caring. You have to make a human connection with the caller. Next, you have to listen. It’s painful holding things in. We give people a safe place to let the hurt out and process it.”

Helping is the third part in any intervention process. LaBonte says, “Sometimes the help involves collaborative problem solving and exploring options that can move the caller forward and empower some positive changes. For us it’s always about the caller. Meeting the caller where they’re at in terms of their situation. What are their needs, values, and priorities?

“Just providing a caring ear can often prevent something from becoming a crisis—or keep a crisis from becoming acute or life-threatening. There is something intrinsically healing about the power of compassionate listening.”

For longer term help, the center’s crisis line volunteers can refer callers to resources such as mental health centers, drug rehabs, shelters, or 12-step programs.

One of the benefits of volunteering, LaBonte says, is that crisis line workers become familiar with local resources. “When they leave their service with us, it creates an additional layer of protection for the community because they are now empowered by their knowledge and skills and are better equipped to help those in trouble who they may encounter.”

Because the volunteers are often the first point of contact when someone is in need, the MCC focuses on what LaBonte calls “the beauty of confidential hotlines in breaking down barriers.” Barriers include stigma, shame, fear, even geography. Hotlines provide a safe and confidential point of contact that can break those barriers down. “Our volunteers can de-stigmatize and encourage the caller,” LaBonte continues. “Immediacy and accessibility make us so vital.

“We often serve as a stop gap measure for those struggling with mental illness and acute emergencies that are verging on suicide.”

The Holistic Value of MCC in Memphis
The MCC provides support on as many challenges as possible. “The calls we get deal with everything you can imagine,” LaBonte says, “including mental health and emotional problems, grief and grieving, addiction and recovery, and crime and family violence issues such as child abuse, elder neglect, domestic violence, and sexual assault.”

Another major issue, he says, is the impact of poverty. “The lack of resources such as food, shelter, and transportation make life difficult for so many Mid-Southerners.” According to LaBonte, the MCC is a proud partner in United Way of the Mid-South’s Driving the Dream initiative that links families struggling with poverty into programs to enhance their financial stability and transition them to greater self-sufficiency.

Other major MCC community partners include the Family Safety Center that provides free services for victims of domestic violence, and the Crime Victim’s and Rape Crisis Center that focuses on crime and sexual assault. The University of Tennessee Health Science Center is also a major partner, providing the MCC with a home for over 10 years now.

MCC is helping individuals, but it is also helping communities and the agencies who serve those communities. “We facilitate community stability by de-escalating situations that might otherwise spill over into community violence. We can link troubled individuals into systems of care.”

LaBonte also sees the MCC as cost effective for the community. “The ability to de-escalate crisis situations before they become acute can translate into fewer trips to the ER and less need for costly on-site active rescue by police and other emergency services.” He also sees the value of hotlines in freeing up 911 dispatchers by creating a resource for those struggling with chronic mental illness and needing somewhere to turn to cope with daily challenges.

LGBTQ+ Support
Many of us are familiar with the increased suicidal risk factors for LGBTQ+ individuals. LaBonte has a personal commitment to the cause and ensuring that the MCC provides a safe place for LGBTQ+ individuals facing crisis situations. In the 1990s, LaBonte was a student activist with the Bisexual, Gay and Lesbian Awareness (BGALA) group at the University of Memphis, now known as the Stonewall Tigers. He was instrumental in the University of Memphis becoming the first public university in the state of Tennessee to include sexual orientation in its non- discrimination policies. LaBonte says he is especially proud that the MCC has always been inclusive. “We’ve even had past board members that were active in founding MAGY and held leadership positions in TEP.

“We know that LGBTQ+ youth have a greater risk of suicide, experience higher rates of discrimination, harassment, and … families are still rejecting their kids for coming out. We have some great resources today like OUTMemphis’ Metamorphosis project and support groups. A little bit of acceptance for LGBTQ+ youth can go a long way in preventing suicide,” according to LaBonte.

“One powerful experience I had on the crisis line happened many years ago,” stated LaBonte. “I received a call from a 16 year old lesbian in a rural community. She had been extremely active in her church and had recently been outed. She was devastated by the rejection she received and had an immediate and lethal means to end her life.” During the call, LaBonte reminded her that she would not always be in the place she was that day. “In a few years, I told her, she would be able to make her own decisions and even find an affirming church family— something she had never heard of before…By the end of the call we had disabled her suicide plan and she made a decision to live.”

During the COVID 19 pandemic the MCC has seen an increase in calls, including a 22% increase in suicide calls. “More people are struggling with depression, anxiety, and loss.” LaBonte advises on ways to help: “The truth is we need to be checking on our neighbors, especially seniors and other isolated folks, and making connections in safe ways like telephone calls. We need those connections. Call people. The almost lost art of telephone conversation is a safe way to socialize in the pandemic. We need each other.”

If you are in need of help, call (901) CRISIS-7 or 901.274.7477. For more information, visit .