Wendy Ban was devastated when her mother took her own life in 1969, but she did the best she could to deal with it.

"Life went on," she said.

When her husband, Don, killed himself in 2008, though, her well of self-help was dry.

"Nothing prepares you for a second suicide," Ban said. "At that point, I found I needed more help than I could provide for myself."

The West Side resident joined a support group, Survivors of Suicide, and in 2010, she started volunteering for the Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline.

Nine years later, Ban, 66, has logged nearly 2,000 hours of helping through the hotline, putting her own experience to use as she deals with the distraught.

"She's very dependable," said Rick Baumann, assistant coordinator of Suicide Prevention Services for North Central Mental Health Services, which runs the hotline. "She's been there and understands the stress and is able to sell hope, which is what we do."

Ban was busy June 11 during her regular weekly 6 to 9 a.m. shift, answering calls in a small room at the North Central building in the University District.

The hotline, funded by the Alcohol, Drug and Mental Health Board of Franklin County, received more than 16,000 calls last year.

Some callers say they have hurt themselves; others say they are considering it. But Baumann said about 10 percent of calls are from "third parties,"people who are concerned about a friend or loved one, or from survivors -- those left behind after someone dies by suicide.

Because of her experience, Ban said she feels a special affinity for those callers.

"Their grief and the ambiguity (of suicide) is often so overwhelming that they'll tell me they don't think they can ever feel normal again," Ban said.

"I tell them that normal life can occur again, and that they're not alone."

Ban can testify to how far society has advanced in dealing with suicide.

Ban was a teenager when her mother, Ruth, killed herself. Back then, suicide was a taboo subject.

"My mother had MS (multiple sclerosis), and sometimes when somebody asked how my mother died, I would say she died of MS rather than suicide," Ban said.

Thirty-nine years later, after Ban's husband died, much more help was available, such as the survivors' support group she joined. On the shelf above the two desks in the hotline room sit several binders full of resources that volunteers can pass along to callers.

Ironically, Baumann said, the increase in available help has caused one problem: With more suicide hotlines popping up locally in recent years -- including those at Ohio State University and Nationwide Children's Hospital -- the pool of volunteers has been stretched thin.

Hannah Thompson, coordinator of Suicide Prevention Services, said the group has 150 to 200 volunteers at a given time, but about half of those are substitutes and don't pull a regular shift at the 24-hour, 7-day-a-week hotline.

Thompson also said that "compassion fatigue" and burnout can affect volunteers, who undergo 50 hours of training before being asked to commit to work six hours a week for their first six months. After that, they can drop back to three hours weekly or become a substitute.

Ban's friendship with Northeast Side resident Michael O'Connell, 69, helped lead O'Connell to start volunteering with the hotline two years ago.

The two usually work the same shift.

"I was a little bit terrified at first, because this is a huge responsibility," O'Connell said. "What if I screw up? What if I don't know what to do? But that didn't happen, because they give you great training.

"They teach you what to say and what not to say, and they emphasize active listening and getting them (callers) to talk."

The need to talk doesn't have an expiration date. Eleven years after her husband's death, Ban still attends the Survivors of Suicide support group.

"The friendships I've made in that group and also at the hotline have helped me enormously," she said.

"And I thought to myself, 'If I'm not going to step up to volunteer (at the hotline), who is?' "

The Franklin County Suicide Prevention Hotline can be reached at 614-221-5445; the Teen Suicide Prevention Hotline at 614-294-3300; or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255/TALK (or 1-888-628-9454 for Spanish speakers). To reach someone at Ohio's 24/7 Crisis Text Line, send 4HOPE to 741741.

kgordon@dispatch.com

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