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San Francisco Suicide Prevention’s ‘Laughs for Life’

By Julissa James

Illustration by Iris Lei

In 1962, with the Summer of Love a bubble under San Francisco’s surface, six volunteers rallied in the basement of a Tenderloin tattoo parlor to form the San Francisco Suicide Prevention agency. Suicide stigma was so deep-seated in the early ’60s that in order to get the word out, volunteers passed out fliers urging folks in need to “call Bruce.”

“If you we’re a friend of Bruce, you were one of our hotline counselors,” explains Jimmy Ancheta, director of development and operations at the agency. “That way people would be able to engage with suicide prevention and talk about [it] without outwardly saying ‘I’m suicidal.’ It was more like, ‘I need Bruce,’ or ‘I’m looking for Bruce.’”

The Cause: As the first U.S. hotline, San Francisco Suicide Prevention has grown from six volunteers to 200-plus in the last 60 years. Its mission— to destigmatize suicide — remains consistent, but its methods have changed with the times. Today, in addition to a 24-hour crisis hotline, the agency runs an HIV/AIDS night-line and textline, a drug information line and a relapse line as well as other services like outreach programs for youth, LGBTQ communities and the juvenile justice system.

Founder: Bernard Mayes, a legendary British broadcaster who formed the hotline in response to the lack of mental health services in San Francisco at the time. Mayes died in 2014, but his legacy lives on. “His name is still one we tell all of our volunteers,” says Ancheta. “He left the groundwork.”

Inspiration: “What really drives the staff effort here is knowing that we’re part of this evolutionary change in mental health,” Ancheta explains, adding: “We’re meeting people where they need care the most.”

Impact: The agency receives roughly 300 calls daily — an increase from the year spanning 2017 to 2018, when 175-185 calls was the norm. This surge in activity is a combination of many outreach efforts, says Ancheta, but there’s more to it. “It’s very situational. When high-profile suicides like Anthony Bourdain and Kate Spade happened, there was an increase in calls. It’s also the political climate. During the [Brett] Kavanaugh hearings, we saw a spike in calls [from] survivors of sexual assault and people who felt like their voice had been muted when they came forward. Also, [from people that were displaced] after the wildfires.”

Budget: $1.3 million annually

Supporters: Sutter Health CPMC, Kaiser Permanente and a slew of individual and community donors who have a personal connection to the cause.

Get involved: On April 9, the agency hosts Laughs for Life at the Bently Reserve — a comedic celebration with performances by Irene Tu, Jared Goldstein and Joseph Nguyen, along with an open conversation about suicide prevention. For more information on the event and volunteer opportunities, visit

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