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Longtime SFSP ED to retire after gala

by Charlie Wagner

San Francisco Suicide Prevention Executive Director Eve R. Meyer, left, and development director Jimmy Ancheta. Photo; Charlie Wagner
San Francisco Suicide Prevention Executive Director Eve R. Meyer, left, and development director Jimmy Ancheta. Photo; Charlie Wagner  

Four comedians will perform at the 30th Laughs for Life Gala Thursday, May 3, to benefit San Francisco Suicide Prevention, which was founded by the late gay Anglican priest Bernard Mayes in 1962.

Hosted by Allie Zisfein, comedians scheduled to appear include Paul Conyers, Nick Aragon, and Dash Kwiatkowski.

The evening will be a grand sendoff for Executive Director Eve R. Meyer, who is retiring after 30 years, and includes a VIP reception, seated dinner, and silent auction. Meyer's roots in comedy inspired her to add a comedy show to the annual event after she was hired in 1988.

Meyer described Mayes as a "movie star handsome" man who came to San Francisco in the early 1960s to research a story on San Francisco's suicide rate, then the highest in the U.S. When he asked about a suicide hotline, like he had seen in Britain, he was told, "we don't believe in them," Meyer said.

Mayes was not a person to sit still for long, Meyer said. With the LGBTQ community in mind, Mayes handed out matchbooks in Tenderloin bars with his phone number and the words, "Thinking of ending it? Call Bruce."

Meyer's path to the SFSP was completely different but infused with drama. Coming from a stressful marketing position at a hospital, Meyer thought she might "get a rest at a quiet nonprofit." She soon found working for SFSP was "not relaxing at all," but added, "Moments after I got here, I had an eerie feeling I was 'at home.'"

When she conveyed that to her older brother, his response was "you forgot something." That something was her family's unique and traumatic history.

Her father was director of public health in Berlin, and though Jewish, assumed he was safe in the early days of the Hitler regime. That soon changed and in 1939, her grandmother, father, mother, sister, and brother fled to Belgium, where, after the death of her sister under mysterious circumstances, they were all rounded up and taken to a holding camp in southern France.

Months later, assuming they would soon be taken to a concentration camp and murdered, they escaped and reached the French-Spanish border. Guards examined their hastily-prepared papers and denied them permission to continue.

Her parents and grandmother decided on the spot to walk into the Mediterranean, presumably to their deaths, taking her 8-year-old brother with them. Her brother became hysterical, screaming and splashing to pull free. A guard witnessed the whole thing and was so distraught he waded into the water, told them their papers were in order, and cleared them to cross the border. They took a boat to safety in the United States.

Meyer believes her parents never recovered from the trauma of their imprisonment and escape.

"They had, what we now call, post-traumatic stress but which was then called 'your fault,'" she explained.

So, her own family's brush with suicide many decades before adds an extra resonance to Meyer's boast that SFSP has turned into a success story. SFSP is the model for over 500 suicide prevention organizations nationally and an 800 number connects callers across the country with their nearest hotline center.

SFSP operates on a budget of about $1.2 million, with about half of that coming from the city. As Meyer pointed out, "Our users rarely provide funds because we almost never find out who they are. There's a real wall between us and the clients unless someone's life is in danger."

SFSP's approach to suicide prevention has evolved over the years and has changed to what Meyer described as "a more practical and safety-oriented plan."

Meyer and SFSP believe, "Time is your friend. Suicide is the result of pain, but pain is a temporary condition. We want to get people through their crisis." As a result of SFSP's work, the current suicide rate in San Francisco is below that of the U.S. in general. And, Meyer pointed out, "We've never lost anyone on the phone."

Volunteers are always welcome, she said. Training lasts eight weeks and commits volunteers to one four-hour shift a week.

Meyer was married by a gay rabbi in 1988 and currently attends a mostly gay synagogue and considers herself a straight ally. Of the 15 SFSP staff, three are LGBTQ, including the hotline director, weekend coordinator, and director of development, Jimmy Ancheta.

Ancheta said that, "LGBTQI people are more susceptible to depression," and noted that, "though they make up only about 5 percent of our calls, about 50 percent of those are high-risk calls." He noted that volunteers receive specific training on LGBTQ topics and HIV.

Issues that frequently arise in those calls are fear of coming out, usually connected with people in transitional housing or broken situations, problems of bullying at home or in the classroom, substance abuse, and grief issues.

"Rejection by family is frequently part of the anxiety of youth callers, who are coming out at younger ages," Ancheta said. He has observed that, "Calls about health questions and HIV have increased since the (last national) election."

Meyer emphatically refutes the assumption that people should avoid talking about suicide because they will put the idea in another person's head.

"Many studies show talking about it does not do that," she said, and then suggested this approach, "Say, 'I want to help you.'"

Besides the 24-hour Crisis Line (415-781-0500), SFSP has six other programs: an HIV Nightline (415-434-2437); a Drug Line (415-362-3400); a Relapse Line (415-834-1144); Peer Workforce Supportive Services for professionals of mental health services; Grief and Survivors Programs for people who have lost a loved one to suicide; and a Youth Risk Reduction Program, which trains students and staff of local schools and youth agencies.

Laughs for Life starts at 5:30 p.m. at the Julia Morgan Ballroom, 465 California Street. Tickets are $300. For more information, visit http://www.sfsuicide.org.

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