FirstLink is a free, confidential call center available to anyone 24/7/365 for listening and support, referrals to resources and crisis intervention. Jennifer Illich (left), Director of Helpline Operations, and Cindy Miller, Executive Director, ensure that FirstLink is able to provide support for those in need.
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Crisis Intervention: FirstLink

Photo by Nolan P. Schmidt

All it takes is the simple act of picking up the phone to change someone’s life. FirstLink’s mission is to be the first point of contact whether an individual needs resources or support if they’re feeling anxious, depressed or suicidal. FirstLink is a free, confidential call center available to anyone 24/7/365 for listening and support, referrals to resources and crisis intervention.

“We’re there 24 hours a day whether you need resources, whether you need someone to listen and support you if you’re feeling anxious, depressed, suicidal,” Cindy Miller, executive director of FirstLink said. “If you have financial needs. If you just need to check in with someone, sometimes just having someone listen to you and tell you that they care and listen to what you’re going through.”

We’re there for anyone, anytime, anywhere across the entire state. There are not many services like that.

Jennifer Illich, Director of Helpline Operations

FirstLink was been operating for 50 years and is the only call center in North Dakota that answers the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, as well as the only 211 Help Center in the state. FirstLink serves the entire state of North Dakota and 19 counties in Minnesota. Someone can live in a small community in western North Dakota with few accessible resources and still have access to FirstLink.

“We’re there for anyone, anytime, anywhere across the entire state,” Jennifer Illich, director of helpline operations, said. “There are not many services like that.”

“Think how many places close at five o’clock at night,” Miller said. “Say it’s 5:05 and I’m really having a crisis right now or I need help with something, law enforcement or maybe an emergency room are your two choices. But we’re that other choice that’s there all the time.” Both Miller and Illich agree that it can be hard to ask someone if they are contemplating suicide, but just talking to someone can make a big difference. That is where FirstLink comes in as an impartial resource providing a listening ear and connecting people to resources. People can even call together if that is more comfortable for them.

“When someone will get a phone call back from somebody and they say, ‘Thank you so much, I was in a really down and dark place last week and your staff helped me. Now I’m alive because of your staff because it gave me hope and led me to services.’ That is outstanding,” Illich said. “It makes it so real that we truly helped the person on the phone.”

FirstLink provides both phone and text support where call specialists will actively listen without judgment and maintain confidentiality to provide referrals to professional support services. Anyone seeking services in their community is also encouraged to utilize FirstLink. This can include families seeking services for their children, teachers or clergy seeking help for those they serve, assisting disaster relief efforts and even seniors seeking volunteer opportunities.

FirstLink offers a variety of programs to further serve the community. Through the Caring Contacts program, FirstLink receives referrals from area hospitals to check in with individuals who may be at greater risk of suicide to support them as they continue their journey toward recovery. A call specialist from FirstLink calls the individual within 24 hours to make sure that they’re going to their medical appointments, check if they have any financial needs or do listening and support. Also through the Caring Contact program, FirstLink sends homemade caring cards in the mail to their clients.

“It seems so simple but it’s actually one of the only research-proven facts of preventive suicide and helps with addiction as well, just to get a card in the mail,” Illich said.

In addition to these services, FirstLink is also a huge proponent of continued suicide prevention education and outreach. FirstLink promotes its services among nursing students to share with their patients who might need extra help and support. FirstLink also does training at beauty schools. Since many people see their hairdressers regularly and share personal information with them, the hairdresser will be ready to direct their clients to the proper resources should any concerns arise.

FirstLink offers three accredited training programs for the community on mental health and suicide prevention:

  • SafeTALK prepares individuals to become a suicide-alert helper by recognizing invitations for help in someone’s words and actions.
  • Mental Health First Aid teaches individuals how to identify, understand and respond to signs of mental illness and substance use disorders.
  • ASIST (Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training) enhances a caregiver’s ability to assist a person at risk of suicide.

FirstLink also conducts suicide intervention training in schools.

Over the years, FirstLink has had an impact on thousands of lives. After her son took his own life in 1998, Cyndy Rodacker of Jamestown, North Dakota, attended the Suicide Survivors Support Group, which was organized by FirstLink at the time. Rodacker recognized the importance of a service like FirstLink and bravely shares her own experiences with suicide to help others in the community who may be facing similar challenges.

“They just helped me. They were there for me, they sent me material and got me connected with people,” Rodacker said. “Last year and this year, I suggested to our motorcycle group, Midnight Riders, to support FirstLink, because they were there for me.”

Rodacker is a member of the Midnight Riders, which organizes an annual motorcycle ride. In recent years, this motorcycle group has raised funds for FirstLink as well as facilitated open discussions to eliminate the stigma surrounding suicide and encourage people to reach out for help.

“There’s too much suicide out there,” Rodacker said. “We’re trying so hard to raise awareness and just get the word out there and say it’s okay to go and get mental help.”

Through Rodacker’s and the Midnight Rider’s efforts, the annual Ride to Silence the Stigma has raised thousands of dollars for FirstLink, in addition to promoting suicide prevention education among the public.

“Know the signs of depression because I didn’t see that with my son until after
the fact,” Rodacker said. “If you know somebody that needs help, call somebody. If they won’t confide in you maybe there’s somebody else that they will confide in. Try to reach out to them. Call a friend. Do whatever you need to do.”

In 2019, FirstLink had a record year with 60,148 contacts, approximately 5,000 a month. This year has been an especially trying year with over 7,000 calls in each of the last three months. FirstLink has received an influx of calls regarding stressors of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as increased financial burdens, isolation and hybrid learning are adding more pressure to an already stressful and uncertain situation.

“We never know what life’s gonna throw at us, and we should just remember that we need this number in our phones, in our minds to share with others or to have ourselves,” Miller said.

FirstLink is a valuable community resource available for everyone to utilize. You can help FirstLink by donating, volunteering, sharing the hotline number and contacting legislators for support. Just offering a shoulder to lean on, a handwritten card or a spontaneous phone call or text can be enough to inspire change as well.

“You don’t have to be a therapist to be therapeutic,” Miller said. “Talking to someone can make a big difference in someone else’s life.”

FirstLink’s resources are accessible in the following ways:

24-Hour Helpline/Textline
Dial 2-1-1 or 701-235-7335 (SEEK) Textline: Text your zipcode to 898211 Youth Line: text ND4ME to 898211 Call for information about referral to community resources, listening and support

24-Hour Suicide Lifeline
1-800-273-8255 (TALK)

Online Directory of Resources

Written by Brady Drake

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