Samaritans Celebrate Their Fortieth Birthday

Published in Woonsocket Call on January 22, 2017

In 2001, Denise Panichas took the temporary job as executive director of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, only expecting to stay at the helm for six week. Looking back over the last 16 years the Woonsocket resident clearly sees the hook that has kept her in her very demanding job.

“After my arrival people I knew, from all walks of life, came up to me sharing their personal stories of losing a loved one to suicide or being a caregiver to a person with physical or behavioral problems,” says Panichas. “My decision to stay in my temporary position for just one week, turned into two weeks and then time just quickly flew by,” she says, noting that her empathy grew daily with each encounter with Rhode Islanders who suffered the tragic loss of a loved one.

Surviving the Financial Storm

Running a small statewide nonprofit is not as easy as one thinks, notes Panichas, as she reflected on the uncontrollable obstacles she had to overcome to keep The Samaritans, the state’s only nonprofit group exclusively dedicated to suicide prevention and education, financially afloat.

Panichas watched her donations dry up as the America’s economy spiraled out of control during the 2008 financial crisis, some calling it the nation’s worst the 1930’s Great Depression. Before that, at the state-level, The Samaritans along with many of Rhode Island’s nonprofits, lost funding when the United Way of Rhode Island eliminated member agencies, cutting assistance to many nonprofit groups. “The Samaritans lost over $50,000 from these cuts,” says Panichas, stressing that that downsizing and redirected fundraising efforts to target individual contributors and special event fundraisers (“Cross the Bridge to Hope” at the Pell Bridge Run) brought in needed funds into the nonprofit’s coffers to man the hotlines and its grief support group.

Today, 17 percent of The Samaritan’s funding comes from state and local grants, the rest coming from foundation, individual, corporate and special event contributions. Eighty one percent of its fundraising dollars is allocated to program, she says.

But, Panichas now sees better times for The Samaritans as she begins organizing events and programs that will take place in the upcoming months to celebrate the 40th Anniversary of The Samaritans. “In February, we are planning to release the details about the free programs and special events that will serve as our fundraisers,” she says.

Panichas and her board of 12 community leaders, from six Rhode Island communities and nearby Massachusetts, are also in discussion with the Preservation Society of Pawtucket to purchase the Baker-Hanley House, one of the City’s oldest houses, on Park Place, to serve as its first owned headquarters. The agency is planning a “Peace Garden” at the side of the historic structure to allow visitors to mediate and reflect on loved ones they have lost through suicide. .

Over forty years, The Samaritans have worked hard to bring the topic of suicide out of the closet and into public discussion, say Meredith Hampton, president of The Samaritan’s who has served on its board for over 15 years. “We have persevered and gained public support who have rallied behind our efforts,” she says.

Like Panichas, Hampton, a Cranston resident who serves as senior project manager for Norwood, Massachusetts-based Cramer Production Company, a marketing and communications firm, is thrilled that her nonprofit is celebrating its ruby anniversary of providing programs and services to the Rhode Island community. Hampton notes that owning a building will “put a face to the organization” and she expects the capital campaign to be announced in a couple of months.

Reaching out to Rhode Island’s Lonely

“Feeling low with nowhere to turn” noted songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement regularly played, there is a place to call – The Samaritans – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the despairing and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 550,000 calls and trained more 1,355 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, independent Samaritan branches can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its web site.

The communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis, says Panichas, noting that conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.
“Suicide is considered a missed opportunity in prevention,” says Panichas. She stresses, “If you are doing all the talking there is a very chance that you will miss what is really bothering the hopeless caller.”

Panichas noted in 2016 more than 5,491 calls were logged into The Samaritans’ Listening Line, a great resource for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders. She estimates that 997 came from seniors.

In 2016, The Samaritans hosted over 108,305 visitors to its website, many going to caregiver information. The nonprofit’s website received 1,487,691 hits and 233,336 pages were viewed. Panichas believes that the increased website visits are due to the “growing problem of suicide and our nonprofit group’s effective use of social media.”

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

The Samaritans can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

Rhode Island’s Art Community Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s 307 acre Arts & Entertainment District. According to Panichas, a built out professional gallery allowed her to open the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through networking and partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we are able to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” she says.

“Every piece of art sold or every gift bought through our gift shop provides needed funded for our programs and also contributes to Rhode Island’s state artistic small business economy,” says Panichas.

Eric Auger of Pawtucket and co-owner of Ten31 Productions also in Pawtucket, volunteers his time and talent in curating gallery shows throughout the year, says Panichas, noting that there have been more than two dozen exhibits, performances and education programs since 2011.

At the Forget-Me-Not Gallery, no sales taxes are charged on one-of-a-kind pieces of art work. The gallery also is a retail site for Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry and other giftware.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans, its Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go to http://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website, http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

Comic Robin Williams’ Death Puts Spotlight on Depression, Suicide

Published in Pawtucket Times, August 15, 2014

Last Monday evening, millions of Americans were shocked to hear that 63-year- old Robin Williams died from an apparent suicide. While it was well-known that he had a history of severe depression and years of alcohol and drug addiction, we were stunned by the unexpected tragic news. publically, Williams had it all, fame, fortune, loyal friends, and fans in every corner of the globe. But like millions of Americans he suffered in silence trying to slay his personal demons when he went into substance abuse treatment.

The sudden death of this Oscar-winning actor, recognized as America’s comic genius, squarely puts the spotlight on depression, a mental illness that commonly afflicts tens of millions of Americans.

DDepression Becomes a Public Conversation

Within the first 48 hours of Williams’ suicide The Samaritans of Rhode Island saw an increase in calls from people concerned about loved ones and friends, says Executive Director Denise Panichas, who expects to also see an increase in visits to her Pawtucket-based nonprofit’s website. Last year, its website received more than 50,000 visitors.

Panichas says, “William’s death reinforces the fact that suicide knows no boundaries, it being a relentless demon afflicting both rich or poor, and those having access to therapy or medical care and those not having it.

According to the Woonsocket resident, William’s suicide has raised the awareness of suicide prevention in a way that millions of dollars in public health announcements could never have done. “William’s movies as well as his dedication to community service resonate with multiple generations, says Panichas, stressing that his six plus decades had value “which will live on.”

Williams substance abuse problems also highlights the need for more awareness as to how addictions can be a risk factor for depression and suicide, states Panichas, who observes that throughout the country, in ever city and town, budgets for substance abuse treatment are being decimated, she adds.

“Promoting wellness and preventing addictions will always be a big challenge but we must do more if we want to see a decrease in suicides,” says Panichas.

Panichas expects the death of Williams, an internationally acclaimed movie star, will have an impact on fundraising for suicide prevention or addiction and depression prevention programs. She has seen an increase in donations from Rhode Islanders as well as from around the country. .

“One donor gave a donation in memory of “Mork”. The donations coming in may be small but every one counts toward keeping our programs available to the public,” says Panichas, noting that over the years public funding has “been drying up.” The Samaritans of RI is using more creative fundraising structures, like crowdfunding (www.crowdrise.com/samaritansri2014) and other social venture sites to create new revenue streams for her nonprofit, she adds.

An Illness That Can Affect Anyone

Lisa B. Shea, MD, Medical Director of Providence-based Butler Hospital, Providence, learned of William’s suicide by a CNN alert on her IPhone. To the board- certified psychiatrist who serves as a clinical associate professor at Brown University’s Alpbert Medical School, “it was tragic but preventable.”

Shea, a practicing psychiatrist for 20 years, notes that people who have suicidal thoughts, like Williams, are struggling with mental health disorders. “Their thinking can get very dark and narrow and they believe they have no options,” she says, oftentimes feeling like a burden to others. “It does not matter who you are mental illness can strike any one regardless of their wealth and fame,” she says.

According to Shea, the public’s interest in William’s tragic death sheds light on the fact that people can get help and it begins with taking a positive first step. “People with suicidal thoughts, who feel “intensely tortured and can not see any way out of their situation, can benefit from supportive therapeutic relationships, medications, and getting support from family and friends who can push them into getting professional help,” she says.

Shea calls on Congress and Rhode Island state lawmakers to positively respond to the William’s suicide by providing increased funding to create access to treatment and prevention programs and to support mental health research.

Finally, Shea says that there are a number of tell-tale signs of a person expressing hopelessness who may be thinking of ending their life. They include statements made by someone that others are better off if he or she were not around; excessive use of alcohol and/or drugs; not taking care of yourself; and giving away personal items. When these occur, talk to the person telling them that you care about them and are concerned for their well-being.

Adds Melinda Kulish, Ph.D., a Clinical Psychologist/Clinical Neuropsychologist and Instructor of Psychology at Harvard Medical School, “There are also times when depression is not easily recognizable. Some people who are depressed experience it most acutely when by themselves but can appear fine, even quite happy, when they are with other people.”

Kulish explains that, for various reasons, some people feel the need to make others happy. Cheering others up or making others laugh makes them also feel happy.

“But, if that person is suffering from depression, the happiness is fleeting – the laughter ends and they once again feel empty and sad. The cheering up of others is a fix that is OUTSIDE, not inside of them.

“And drugs and alcohol can make them feel better for a time. The high always ends, and when alone, they feel empty and even more depressed,” says Kulish. “There’s really good research to suggest that talking about traumatic and upsetting events leads to much healthier responses. The old idea, ‘I’m just not going to talk about it so it’ll go away’ doesn’t work.”

“It’s a myth that if you ask a person if they are suicidal you will put that idea in their heads,” says Shea.

Feeling Low, a Place to Call

When this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers once said in a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the desperate and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its website.

Executive Director Panichas, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking. Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2014, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 4,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website,http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Art Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go tohttp://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll-free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

For mental health resources, go to http://www.butler.org.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.

Coping with the Holiday Blues

Published December 14, 2012, Pawtucket Times

Chestnuts roasting in your fireplace, green wreaths with red ribbons and brightly colored lights on decorated evergreen trees may elicit pleasant thoughts about the upcoming holidays; however, these thoughts might just tear open old wounds and bring to the surface bad memories, triggering stress, tension and even depression.

Not every family gathering with your parents, siblings, children, or grandchildren will be as serene as a Norman Rockwell painting. Of course, everyone has heard horror stories involving holiday family gatherings.

Surviving the Stress of Family Visits

Allison Bernier, LICSW, Associate Director of Wellness Employment and Network Services, at the Providence Center, notes that while the holiday season can be a time of family celebration, joy, and companionship for many people, it can also be a very stressful time. “High expectations, disrupted routines, dealing with loss or separation from loved ones, financial strain, and time constraints can all exacerbate anxiety and depression,” she says.

Bernier, who has 15 years under her belt employed as a Social Worker, who now provides one-to-one counseling to clients for the past six years, provides common sense tips as to how to survive stress that can be ignited by holiday family gathering.

Fighting holiday blues can be as simple as being prepared for family conflicts and having a specific plan to handle the uncomfortable emotions that may arise, notes Bernier. Creating a list of “potential issues” and “role playing how you will react with people you trust” can be effective ways to survive difficulties that might occur, she says.

“It is okay to know that you don’t have to be happy during the holidays,” states Bernier, stressing “just accept your feelings and the place where you are at.” If needed, just reach out to your network of family or friends or contact a professional, she recommends.

According to Bernier, when expectations are unrealistic, we almost always will fail to meet them. Scale back on your plans, or ask for help Just keep your expectations low and when you visit family or friends, just go and enjoy the social interactions, she says.

If seeing family causes you great amounts of stress each year, it is alright to say no sometimes and celebrate with friends, Bernier recommends. If you don’t want to withdraw from your family gathering because of tension, you don’t have to, she says. “Just keep your visit time-limited,” she recommends, only going for an hour or two rather than spending all day at the event.

The holidays can easily become a source of stress, especially when you’re standing in long lines at the local mall waiting to buy the last available iPad while trying to remember how much money you have left to use on your credit cards. Writing out a gift list along with creating a budget for holiday spending can help decrease anxiety, too, Bernier notes. By setting spending limits you will also reduce the anxiety that comes with reviewing your post-holiday credit card bills.

Maintaining healthy habits can also take the blues out of your holiday, predicts Bernier. Enjoy some eggnog, cheese cake or pastries at a holiday party, but keep the balance by eating healthy foods (smaller portions), drinking alcohol in moderation, continuing to exercise and getting enough rest.

Coping with Holiday Depression

Besides family stress, other factors may well play into bringing on the holiday blues.

During this time of the year, some Rhode Islanders may even feel a little depressed or have suicidal thoughts with the approaching upcoming festive holidays, especially if they have lost a spouse and friends, are unemployed, experiencing painful chronic illnesses, or just feel isolated from others.

If this happens, “feeling low with nowhere to turn” as noted singer songwriter Bill Withers says is a public service announcement, there is a place to call – The Samaritans of Rhode Island – where trained volunteers “are there to listen.” Incorporated in 1977, the Pawtucket-based nonprofit program is dedicated to reducing the occurrence of suicide by befriending the despairing and lonely throughout the state’s 39 cities and towns.

Since the inception, The Samaritans has received more than 500,000 calls and trained more 1,380 volunteers to answer its confidential and anonymous Hotline/Listening Lines.

With the first Samaritan branch started in England in 1953, chapters can now be found in more than 40 countries of the world. “Samaritans, can I help you?” is quietly spoken into the phone across the world in a multilingual chorus of voices,” notes its web site.

Executive Director, Denise Panichas, of the Rhode Island branch, notes that the communication-based program teaches volunteers to effectively listen to people who are in crisis. Conversations are free, confidential and, most importantly, anonymous.

A rigorous 21-hour training program teaches volunteers to listen to callers without expressing personal judgments or opinions. Panichas said that the listening techniques called “befriending,” calls for 90 percent listening and 10 percent talking.

Panichas noted The Samaritans of Rhode Island Listening Line is also a much needed resources for caregivers and older Rhode Islanders.

Other services include a peer-to-peer grief Safe Place Support Group for those left behind by suicide as well as community education programs.

In 2011, The Samaritans of Rhode Island received more than 7,000 calls and hosted more than 50,000 visitors to its website.

The Samaritans of Rhode Island can be the gateway to care or a “compassionate nonjudgmental voice on the other end of the line,” Panichas notes. “It doesn’t matter what your problem is, be it depression, suicidal thoughts, seeking resources for mental health services in the community or being lonely or just needing to talk, our volunteers are there to listen.”

For persons interested in more information about suicide emergencies, The Samaritans website, http://www.samaritansri.org, has an emergency checklist as well as information by city and town including Blackstone Valley communities from Pawtucket to Woonsocket.

Professional Galley and Gift Shop Supports Program and Services

In December 2011, The Samaritans began a social venture, by relocating to the City of Pawtucket’s Arts & Entertainment District, and opening the Forget-Me-Not Gallery and Community Education Center. Through partnerships with Rhode Island’s fine arts and crafts community, “we hope to foster hope, inspiration and commemoration of the lives of our loved ones who have fallen victim to suicide,” stated Panichas.

At the Forget-Me-Not Gallery, no sales taxes are charged on one-of-a-kind pieces of art work. The gallery also is a retail site for Rhode Island-based Alex and Ani jewelry and other giftware.

For those seeking to financially support the programs of The Samaritans of Rhode Island, its Gallery and Education Center is available to rent for special events, meetings and other types of occasions. For information on gallery rental, call the Samaritans business line at 401-721-5220; or go to http://www.samaritansri.org.

Need to Talk? Call a volunteer at The Samaritans. Call 401.272.4044 or toll free in RI (1-800) 365-4044.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12 is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers health care, aging, and medical issues. He can be contacted at hweissri@aol.com.