Newswise — For much of his life, Matthew Fink has wrestled with thoughts of suicide. The Piscataway resident battled depression and was in therapy since his early teens, but stopped treatment at 17, thinking he could handle his mental illness himself.
He discovered he could not.
“I never actively tried to kill myself, but I would do things like drive home at night without my seatbelt, praying that a drunk driver would kill me,” he says. “Each morning, I was upset that I woke up.”
On one such night, when Fink was 25 and driving without his seatbelt, he realized that without help, he might actually take steps to end his life. He spoke to his family, who encouraged him to seek treatment in an intensive, six-month program where he was diagnosed with major depression.
Today, Fink is one of the peer support specialists who answer calls 24/7 at the NJ Hopeline (855-654-6735), launched last year by the New Jersey Division of Mental Health and Addiction Services and operated by University Behavioral Health Care (UBHC) at Rutgers. In addition to the peer counselors like Fink, mental health clinicians are available to assist with calls.
“I took control of my life and decided to take what I learned and help others in a similar situation,” says Fink, now 31, who enrolled in 2009 in a counselor training program at the Mental Health Association of New Jersey.
“People call because they are thinking about ending their life,” says Fink, who has spoken to callers as young as 12 and as old as 92. “When I tell the caller I have been in their position, we have an instant bond of trust and acceptance. Then, they are able to understand on a deeper level that with proper treatment they can get through this – because I did.”
During its 16 months of operation, the NJ Hopeline has received more than 25,000 calls: 17.6 percent of the people served were at risk for suicide; 3.2 percent were individuals who had already taken steps to kill themselves.
“The suicide rate is rapidly escalating. It has risen by more than 30 percent in the past 10 years,” says Christopher Kosseff, president and CEO of UBHC. “While New Jersey has one of the lowest suicide rates in the country, the operation of the New Jersey Hopeline is critical to keeping it low.”
Nationwide, approximately 8.3 million adults in the United States have suicidal thoughts each year; of those, about 40,000 succeed, according to the most recent report by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Hopeline peer counselors say their volunteer service helps them, too, by reinforcing the coping skills which they continue to apply to their own lives. On September 10, Fink will join other Hopeline peer counselors, behavioral health clinicians and suicide survivors to commemorate World Suicide Prevention Day, an international event that celebrates the efforts to prevent suicide.
There’s still work to be done. Fink, who continues treatment weekly, notes that the stigma associated with mental illness continues to be an obstacle to seeking help. “People will say they don’t want to be labeled as ‘crazy’ or be on medication,” he says, “but I tell them that if they had a serious physical health condition requiring daily medication, they would take it.”
As someone who has been there, Fink knows how depression can isolate people.
“They withdraw and don’t want to talk, which is the worst thing they can do,” he says. “When you isolate yourself, you’re thinking the same negative thoughts in a loop. But when you call the Hopeline, you can talk to someone who knows what you are going through and can provide that guiding hand.”