By Marina Pitofsky
July 18, 2018
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw calls double from 2014 to 2017,
an increase that coincides with rising suicide rates this decade in the
The helpline answered over 2 million calls in 2017, up from approximately 1
million calls in 2014. In 2015 and 2016, the helpline answered over 1.5
million calls each year.
The helpline consists of a nationwide network of over 150 local crisis
centers, as well as national backup centers to assist local lines.
But an uptick in calls may not only be attributable to rising suicide rates
in the U.S. Increased public attention about helpline services has also led
to greater call volumes, said Frances Gonzalez, director of communications
for the national helpline.
"Due to media events and increased public awareness of suicide prevention
and the Lifeline's services, more people aware of this resource and are
getting help and support," Gonzalez said. "The Lifeline has been proven to
deescalate moments of crisis and help people find hope." Gonzalez could not
comment on 2018 projections for the helpline.
Suicide rates increased more than 25 percent between 1999 and 2016,
according to a the latest report by the Centers for Disease Control and
Prevention (CDC), which was released June 7. The states with the highest
jumps in suicide rates during that timeframe were North Dakota, Vermont and
New Hampshire, which saw 57.6 percent, 48.6 percent and 48.3 percent
Cindy Miller, executive director of FirstLink, a crisis center in North
Dakota, said crisis centers are also seeing an uptick in calls because more
people are sharing their information on social media - especially after
high-profile deaths of celebrities like Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain in
June and reverberations from Robin Williams death in 2014.
FirstLink fielded 2,512 calls about suicide in 2016 and 6,533 calls in 2017,
a more than 160 percent increase in calls in a year.
"With social media, the number's out there a lot more," Miller said. "I
don't want to say it's a good thing, but now we're getting them help and
Crisis centers never have a predictable day, according to Bill Zimmermann at
Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care in New Jersey. In June 2013, their
crisis center answered 1,390 calls. In May 2018, they answered 3,699 calls.
"This work is like a busy emergency room to some degree, even though the
patients aren't physically here with us," Zimmermann said. "It's busy,
hectic, demanding work at times."
Zimmermann said the crisis center has opened more lines to help address the
increase, especially overnight when calls to suicide hotlines tend to spike.
Crisis centers are encouraged that a higher call volume means more people
are reaching out for help, said John Reusser, executive director of the
Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline. The hotline received 9,531 contacts in
2017 and 2,869 contacts in 2014, which includes calls, chats and texts to
their crisis center.
Emily Carpenter, a database and resource specialist at FirstLink, said the
crisis center has also opened more lines of communication. Carpenter said
much of the increase in the call volume is due to its call-back program, in
which individuals released from mental health facilities or hospitals can
opt to be called within the first 24 hours of being discharged.
"We have gone to having more staff on at certain times of the day so we can
always answer those calls and they don't roll over to the next call center,"
Carpenter said. "We want people in our state to be able to talk to someone
who's in North Dakota and can maybe relate to them a little better, but
there is always a backup center."
Crisis center staff include social workers, medical professionals and
Jennie Rylee, a former environmental educator and current volunteer at the
Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline, said she was motivated because of her
family history with suicide.
"My mom was an attempt survivor. I am an attempt survivor. As I did therapy
and worked through that business, through depression, I thought I could turn
this into something positive," Rylee said. "This is the most rewarding thing
I've ever done, and I'm 62 years old."
Some crisis center volunteers and employees go beyond answering calls and
chats. Jennifer Illich, director of helpline operations at FirstLink, said
employees make hand-written cards to support callers enrolled in their
call-back program. Illich said she spoke with a former caller who uses her
card to remind her to reach out if she needs assistance.
"When she's in an anxious situation, she just pulls it out of her purse and
peeks at it and puts it back in her purse," Illich said. "She said that
gives her the strength to get through the anxious situation."
A crisis center can serve callers who are depressed or considering suicide
and inform them on what services are available in their community for
themselves and their loved ones, in addition to dispatching emergency
Some callers are hesitant to reach out to crisis centers because they are
afraid volunteers and employees on the other end of the line are going to
call police or emergency workers, even if the caller just wants to talk,
according to Carpenter.
"It's important for people to understand that we're not here to get you into
trouble or send the police. We're here to provide that listening and that
support so that you don't need that service," Carpenter said. "Everything
they tell us is confidential unless what they tell us poses a danger to
themselves or someone else."
Listening to those struggling is the primary goal of crisis centers across
the country, Rylee said.