Five months after his son committed suicide, Rocky Dunham went to the grave with the intent of killing himself too.
Overcome with grief, Dunham took a gun that November day in 2008 to the cemetery where his 27-year-old son, Gordon Joel Dunham, was buried.
But instead of using the gun, he used a card for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline that he had picked up at the Oklahoma City Zoo on a suicide prevention walk.
Dunham called Lifeline, planning to tell someone where his body would be located.
The call specialist in Oklahoma City persuaded Dunham not to kill himself.
“The one thing I do remember is they showed me more reasons to live than I could come up with reasons to die,” he said.
Today, Dunham, 58, of Midwest City, works part time taking calls from others who are considering suicide.
“The most satisfying call is when someone is distraught and thinking about suicide and we ask questions and get them out of the darkness they are in,” Dunham said.
Calls to Lifeline are answered by call specialists at the Oklahoma City-based HeartLine agency if they come from 76 of Oklahoma's 77 counties, spokeswoman Lisa Harper said. Tulsa County callers are routed to a Tulsa hotline.
Volunteers and paid staff members answer telephone calls from suicidal people 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
“We want to help them to find reasons to live versus reasons to die, help them see the good in their lives, the positive that is still there,” Harper said.
A call specialist, who asked to be identified as Cory, said most of those who answer the phones have a personal experience with suicide.
Cory said she is astonished by the number of teenagers who have called in the past year.
From June 1, 2010, to May 31, 2011, the local Lifeline took 283 calls from callers ages 13 to 18.
That number was 460 for the year from June 1, 2011, to May 31.
The total number of calls to Lifeline from people considering for the same periods shows an increase from 5,357 to 6,481.
Statistics show suicide is the second leading cause of death among Oklahomans ages 10 to 24.
Cory said more teenagers are reaching out for help from a problem that is hard to talk about with peers or family.
“It's OK to talk about suicide,” Cory said. “It's OK to ask for help.”
She said more suicide prevention awareness in high schools is helping increase the number of calls.
“Suicide is not a problem that just started,” Harper said.
She said 80 percent of people who commit suicide warn someone before they kill themselves. Only 20 percent commit suicide with no warning.
“Suicide can be prevented,” Harper said.
The agency also provides volunteers and staff members to take calls to help people with gambling problems, people who need information about social services and those who just need someone to listen to their various problems.
With a $1.1 million annual budget, the agency has 30 staff members and about 20 volunteers, Harper said. They answered 162,641 calls in 2011.
Harper said there is always a need for more volunteers, who take 80 hours of training before starting to answer calls.
Kent Collins, 45, an Oklahoma City firefighter, recently joined the HeartLine board of directors. Collins fell from a roof in 2009 while hanging Christmas lights at a north Oklahoma City church and broke his back, pelvis and numerous bones in his left arm. He recovered from the fall and has returned to firefighting.
Collins said it is important for people to have someone other than family or friends to talk to when they are despondent.
“It all has to do with hope,” he said. They callers “don't always see hope. They are in a dark place. Having the suicide hotline helps them see there is hope.”