Deanne Dyck knows that when she works a holiday, there is a chance she will get a call from someone whose life is falling apart.
Dyck is one of 14 mental health professionals who staff the Clark County Mental Health Crisis Line. This year, she was among the workers who drew the lot to work Thanksgiving.
And when she gets a call from someone walking the raggedy edge of a tough holiday, a person coping with mental illness or a teenager reeling from a bad breakup, the holiday spirit is put on pause. The pumpkin bread and reheated breakfast casserole brought into the office is set aside. And Dyck reaches out through the phone, with all the attention and compassion she can muster, to lend a helping hand.
And what does she think of being away from holiday gatherings, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas?
“I miss it,” says Dyck, a woman with a thoughtful smile who has worked in social services since the 1960s. “(My family) are fun people. But this is a part of it. This is what gets me to come back every day, knowing that I’ve touched another human and let them know they’re not alone through this.”
And what “this” is can differ wildly each time the phone rings at the crisis line call center — an event which occurs roughly 1,000 times every month. But every year, as the fourth Thursday of November approaches, some issues can weigh more heavily on the mind.
“There is less light this time of year, it’s getting colder and wetter and with the holidays approaching, it isn’t always a happy time for some people if, say, you’ve been unemployed for a while,” says Marlene Sassali-Burrows, program manager for the county’s crisis services department. “It can be tough.”
Clark County Crisis Services actually does quite a bit more than answer the phones. Sassali-Burrows’ staff all have masters degrees or doctorates in mental health, and they put that to use both on the phone, and face-to-face.
“I would say 96 percent of what we do is not in here,” Sassali-Burrows says, pointing to the closed door of the call center, a location where the public is not allowed. “It’s just a part of what we do. We don’t do ongoing treatment, but we do see people all the way through a crisis.”
And that includes heading out in person to someone’s home, the jail or just to a street intersection somewhere in the county.
“If we get a call, we will go out and do outreach,” said Dyck. “By and large, the people are delightful. They’ve coped with more in a day than I can imagine.”
Still, that doesn’t mean the job isn’t dangerous. In the past three decades, two crisis workers have been killed in the state. To guard against the dangers, the social workers travel in groups of two, and at times involve local law enforcement. Their job is to enter situations which could become dangerous, where people could be contemplating killing themselves or others.
“You feel like the safety net (when you enter a situation),” said Meg Chromey, also a mental health professional who was scheduled to work Thanksgiving. “It’s the most anxious part of the job, but it’s also the most satisfying because you know you make a difference.”
The part where they make a difference, where they diffuse the dangerous situation, is why they work holidays — and every other day of the year. This is a county office which is open 24 hours, seven days a week.
“It’s a lot like firemen or police,” Dyck said. “When you get a call, you step into your clinical role. We have a job to do. I can’t think of anything making that different because it’s a holiday. It’s the same significance. It’s a tragedy every day, and to work with them on a holiday is equally rewarding and difficult as any other day.”
The crisis line is for everyone. That’s a point stressed by the department. Sassali-Burrows says numbers show as many as one-third of the population experience some type of mental illness, regardless of how acute it is, at some time in their life. And everyone can have a horrid day from time to time.
“All of Clark County are our clients,” Sassali-Burrows said. “It’s their crisis, no matter the size. It’s not just the chronically mentally ill, we help everyone.”