San Francisco Suicide Prevention is the oldest community-based telephone crisis center in the United States. Founded in 1962 by a journalist from the British Broadcasting Corporation, the organization adopted a crisis management model developed by the Samaritans Centers in Great Britain and Europe. To this day the agency trains local volunteers who provide suicide prevention and crisis intervention services to callers. Over 500 other crisis centers across the United States now utilize the same concept.
After the collapse of the State mental health system in California, San Francisco Suicide Prevention stepped forward to fill the demand created by insufficient community service funding. Over time, the agency’s workload grew to its current total number of volunteers trained since the agency began now tops 3,500, and the total number of calls answered exceeds 1,000,000.
With a talented staff of 12 FTE, 100 volunteers, and an annual budget just under $800,000, San Francisco Suicide Prevention is one of the most cost-effective crisis care agencies in the country.
In 1962, San Francisco Suicide Prevention opened its services in a Tenderloin hotel with six volunteers, all personally trained by Bernard Mayes, the agency’s founder. To publicize services, they distributed matchbooks in the bars of the Tenderloin. Thirty calls were received during the first month alone. Now the agency receives nearly 200 calls a day, saving lives phone call by phone call. Since the agency’s inception, the San Francisco suicide rate has dropped by half.
Funding from the City and County of San Francisco began in 1972. By 1976, the Drug Line had opened with City funding, followed by the Friendship Line for the Elderly (now at the Institute on Aging.) In 1988 the agency opened its Youth Line, followed by the AIDS/HIV Nightline in 1989. City funding of the Nightline began in 1990 but Youth Risk services have remained privately funded. Linea de Apoyo, a Spanish language crisis-HIV line, was initiated in 1991, and Survivors of Suicide Grief Services was added in 1995.
The current executive director, deputy director, and office manager all joined the agency during the period of 1988-89. By 1992 the agency’s offices were relocated from the Geary corridor (above a tattoo parlor) to the financial district in order to make the agency accessible to a more diverse pool of volunteers. The offices are still in the financial district, but the location remains confidential for security reasons.
San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s programs have been widely featured in the international, national and local media, including the New York Times, the New Yorker, the Washington Post, the London Times, and the San Francisco Chronicle to name a few.