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KU Film & Media Studies professor focuses on volunteers who answer suicide hotline

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

LAWRENCE – When University of Kansas filmmaker Bob Hurst set out to make a film about suicide, he didn’t want to follow in the path of other recent documentaries that appealed to the public’s morbid fascination with the subject.   

He didn’t visit the Golden Gate Bridge or Japan’s Suicide Forest. Instead, Hurst, an associate professor of film and media studies, stayed closer to home and began filming college-age volunteers who answered a statewide suicide prevention hotline at Headquarters Counseling Center. The documentary, “The Listeners," examines how to prevent suicide and shape public policy to better fund the services that do.

At the heart of the documentary, Hurst asks why volunteers, not physicians or other health care professionals, are the ones who answer the calls of those contemplating suicide.

“I think there are good reasons for it. I don’t think it is a failing on the part of professional medicine. It partly has something to do with the empathy any person can provide to another person, which does require training but not an advanced professional degree,” he said.

Starting last fall, Hurst filmed a group of 13 volunteers, most between ages 19 and 22, as they went through the training process, then began to field calls. The documentary also will include interviews from professionals in the field, including those taken at this spring’s American Association of Suicidology Conference.

Hurst found that because the volunteers were strangers, they could provide critical care in ways that others, such as ministers, family members or teachers, couldn’t. Recent research on the effectiveness of crisis line counseling also has found that highly trained volunteers can provide such care. 

“If you call these hotlines, you aren’t going to get someone who is going to solve your problems in that moment. You are going to get someone who cares and listens to you, which research tells us is just as important,” Hurst said.

Hurst has worked on other film projects with ties to social issues, such as “Patriot Guard Riders,” which focuses on a group of motorcycle riders who travel to the funerals of fallen soldiers to form a shield between protesters and the soldier’s family.

Unlike other recent documentaries that highlighted popular suicide spots, Hurst said, he was looking for a film that searched for ways to solve the problem.

“In terms of literature and other films, there isn’t a lot out there,” he said.

Hurst hopes to finish the documentary in the fall of 2015 and would like to see the film broadcasted nationally on public television and then offered for distribution for universities, high schools and other groups.

“Really it is to start a dialogue on how we are looking at the state of mental health care and what can we do to offer support to individuals. We know support for mental health care has eroded significantly over the past several years, and there are consequences to that,” Hurst said.