Spike in Suicide Calls Challenges Hotlines

National Suicide Hotline Inundated By Economically Distressed

A groundbreaking new government study reveals more than eight million American adults seriously considered suicide in 2008 – a number much larger than the roughly 33,000 Americans who die by their own hand every year.

The report – the first of its size and scope – sheds light on what government officials call a serious, growing public health crisis.

"This study offers a far greater understanding of just how pervasive the risk of suicide is in our nation," said Eric Broderick, the acting Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration administrator.

Among the findings: 2.3 million adults made a suicide plan and 1.1 million adults actually attempted suicide last year.

Young adults 18 to 25, long known to be the most likely to consider suicide, were three times more likely than those age 50 or older to be suicidal.

While the study did not report on why so many Americans consider suicide, mental health experts say the emotional impact of the recession is very likely a factor.

Last month, the Department of Health and Human Services provided a cash infusion to dozens of crisis call centers that operate as part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

The centers have been inundated with distress calls since the recession began.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-TALK.

In July alone, the nationwide Lifeline network of 140 local call centers answered 57,000 calls -- more than it's ever received in one single month. Roughly a quarter of those calls were directly related to economic distress, including unemployment, home foreclosure and personal debt, according to Lifeline spokeswoman Lidia Bernik.

"If these economic trends continue, call volume will continue to increase," she said. "The economic crisis is a problem for a lot of American crisis centers, and we simply need more funding."

The influx of calls has left many centers short-staffed and unable to handle the increased workload.

"It's been a struggle for us to recruit and train additional staff, pay the additional overnight crisis workers," said Marshall Ellis, director of development for Virginia-based CrisisLink, one of the centers participating in the Lifeline.

Ellis says the number of calls at his center spiked 140 percent in October 2008, just as the economic and home foreclosure tidal wave was sweeping the country.

"It's been a constant year-over-year increase every month since the start of the recession," he said.

Inside Look at Crisis Center Under Pressure

Inside Crisis Link's third floor Arlington, Va., office suite, volunteers -- so-called "listeners" -- sit in cubicles taking notes as distressed callers divulge their woes. The center averages 90 calls per day.

"So you just wanted to escape from everything, and you felt that was the only way to do it?" asks one volunteer of a caller. "And you said you've been drinking a lot of wine today?"

On another line, a volunteer gives a pep talk for persevering in tough times: "So in the past you said you've tried therapy, and what you've realized is that you really need to change your attitude about the situation."

Laura Renenger, a call volunteer at CrisisLink for the past year-and-a-half, says centers like hers provide a valuable social service that's often overlooked because tracking "success rates" can be difficult.

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