Contact We Care in Westfield provides help and hope for those in crisis

A middle-aged man in distress recently called the crisis intervention and suicide prevention hotline Contact We Care. Like one in four Americans, he was suffering from mental illness and felt lost. One of Contact’s trained volunteer listeners listened and responded and advised the man to seek help at Overlook hospital.

“Weeks later he called the office and said he wanted to thank us for being there,” said Joanne Oppelt, executive director of the hotline, headquartered in Westfield. “He said if he hadn’t called and talked to someone, if he hadn’t gone to the hospital, he wouldn’t be here now. He’d be dead.”

Oppelt remembered the call as she and her volunteers prepare for National Mental Illness Awareness Month this May. Oppelt is hoping the drive to raise awareness of mental health issues will lead more people in crisis seeking help.

An estimated 26 percent of adult Americans, or more than 57.7 million adults, suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder in a given year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health Disorders (NIMH). Approximately 20.9 million adult Americans, or 9.5 percent, suffer from a depressive illness (major depression, bipolar disorder or dysthymia) each year.

Approximately 40 million American adults aged 18 to 54, or about 18.1 percent of people in this age group, have an anxiety disorder in any given year, NIMH reports. Anxiety disorders include: panic disorder, obsessive-compulsive disorder, post-traumatic stress disorder, generalized anxiety disorder and phobias.

More than 90 percent of people who commit suicide have a diagnosable mental disorder, most commonly a depressive disorder or a substance abuse disorder, according to NIMH.

“These numbers are staggering in that they indicate mental illness is something afflicting not only people living in institutions or those who are clearly mentally imbalanced but our neighbors, coworkers and family, as well,” Oppelt said. “The person next to you in the checkout line, your friend living next door or even loved ones within your own home may be suffering from mental illness. The numbers say one quarter of them are.”

Because so many Americans suffer from mental illness unknown to others, it is essential they have someone to reach for when they are in distress or crisis, according to Oppelt.

“Because their loved ones, friends or coworkers may not realize they have a problem, we at CONTACT We Care are here when they call,” she said. “About half our callers are in crisis and about half are repeat callers struggling with a variety of issues, from depression to grief to relationship problems. Some are under medical care but need someone else to talk to.

“These millions of people who have some form of mental disorder are all around us. We have to be there for them when they reach out for help.”

CONTACT We Care relies on more than 120 trained volunteer listeners to be available when these calls come in, according to Oppelt. The hotline handles more than 1,000 calls each month and nearly 100 texts.

“Our volunteers are our lifeblood and the life preservers of our callers,” Oppelt said.

“That gentleman who called seeking answers found an empathetic and trained listener at the other end. They helped save his life.”

To learn more about becoming a volunteer at CONTACT We Care, call 908-301-1899 or visit