Carolyn Petersen discovered years ago that a listening ear and a steady, compassionate voice can save a life.
“I had a young mother call me,” recalls Petersen, of Valentine, Nebraska. “She had gathered some pills, and she was going to kill herself.”
An emergency services dispatcher in New York at the time, Petersen did what she was trained to do – she asked simple, open-ended questions to keep the woman on the line until help can arrive.
“We talked about what could happen to her kids if she wasn’t around anymore,” Petersen says. “After about 15 minutes, a deputy arrived” and stabilized the situation.
That young mother thrived in treatment and went on to join a crisis intervention team – an example of the life-changing ripple effect that Petersen continues to inspire, only in a different place and different capacity.
“I really feel, as part of the human race, we all have an obligation,” she says. “It doesn’t take anything away from me to try and assist somebody or try and counsel them a little. Why not?”
Petersen moved from New York to Valentine about a decade ago to be closer to family. Even though she is no longer an emergency services dispatcher – she recently transitioned to the role of Valentine Community Campus Coordinator for Mid-Plains Community College (MPCC) – she remains devoted to suicide prevention. She is on the verge of becoming a certified QPR Gatekeeper trainer, a designation that will allow her to teach others the QPR Institute’s proven approach (question, persuade, refer) to addressing suicidal behavior.
“When Brian asked me about this, I said, ‘Absolutely.’”
Brian Obert, MPCC Area dean of student life, leads MPCC’s Area Suicide Prevention Initiative, an almost two-year-old program that is supported in part by a Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Nebraska Fearless Grant.
“We wanted more people in the college to know how to respond to suicidal situations,” Obert says. “Then if we get people who are trained, wouldn’t it be nice to share that with the community and provide that service?”
The initiative is another layer of support in a rural area with limited access to mental health professionals. According to the Behavioral Health Education Center of Nebraska, 88 of Nebraska’s 93 counties qualify as “Mental Health Professions Shortage Areas.”
“If we have a lot more people in this area trained to be able to stabilize these situations until we can get them the assistance they need, that’s crucial for our communities,” Obert says.
Once certified, Petersen says she is determined to educate as many people in suicide prevention as possible – not only on campus but also through the community at large, taking QPR training directly to schools, fire halls and senior centers.
“It’s relatively easy training,” Petersen says. “You don’t need to be an emergency services dispatcher; you don’t need to be a pastor or a counselor – anyone can make this difference if you’re not afraid to get involved.”
Right now, MPCC has eight certified instructors who’ve offered QPR suicide prevention training to more than 300 people throughout Valentine, Broken Bow, North Platte, Ogallala, Imperial and McCook.
“Every single person in my community in Valentine can have the ability to stop someone from death by suicide … Just speaking with someone can make all the difference,” says the woman with the life-saving voice.