New Suicide Prevention Number Could Lead to Surge in Calls

By: - December 20, 2019 12:00 am

Editor’s note: If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-8255.

ATLANTA — Brian Anderson, an imposing man with a rich baritone voice, dwarfs his office chair at the Georgia Crisis and Access Line. He talks softly about the first time he tried to end his life.

It was a collect call to his father from a pay phone in Hoboken, New Jersey, that saved him, he said. “I’d made up my mind that my life was over, and I wanted my father to pray for my soul. I told him, ‘Don’t pray for me, that person is finished – pray for my soul.’ I’d already suffered enough in this life, I didn’t want to suffer more in the afterlife.”

Anderson made the call in 1984, when he was 19, after he’d taken fistfuls of drugs to end his pain, he said. He made another attempt to end his life seven years later, before mental health treatment helped him recover.

Now, he talks to people who may be having some of the same thoughts and feelings he had back then. He said he assures them that there are ways to turn their lives around. He’s done it. “I give them hope,” Anderson said.

Suicide rates in the United States have climbed steadily over the past two decades, contributing, along with drug overdoses, to a decline in the average U.S. life expectancy for the third year in a row. The demographers who first identified this trend have called it “deaths of despair.”

In response, Congress enacted the National Suicide Hotline Improvement Act of 2018, to encourage more people to seek help. It directed the Federal Communications Commission to study the feasibility of creating a three-digit suicide hotline number, like 9-1-1, that more people could remember.

Last week, the FCC unanimously approved a proposal to set aside 9-8-8 as the replacement for the existing national suicide hotline number: 800-273-8255. The new number isn’t expected to go live for a year or more.

“The problem we’ve always had is getting more people to find us,” said FCC Chairman Ajit Pai. The shorter and simpler number could increase access to suicide services, reduce stigma and ultimately save lives, he said.

Call Surges

The easy-to-remember number is projected to generate a substantial increase in the number of callers, which suicide prevention experts roundly support.

But the network of local call centers that respond to distraught and suicidal callers is woefully underfunded, said John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which provides infrastructure and support for the nation’s more than 170 local suicide hotlines.

When you call the National Lifeline, 1-800-273-8255, your call is routed to a local call center closest to the area code you call from. If your community doesn’t have a call center or they don’t answer quickly enough, your call rolls over to one of six national call centers that act as a backup.

Last year, 2.2 million people called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, up from 46,000 in 2005. Another roughly 14 million calls come through local crisis lines like Georgia’s — 800-715-4225.

With few exceptions, local call centers are funded by a patchwork of inconsistent state, local and private funding that has failed to increase to meet rising demand, Draper said.

Georgia is one of the exceptions.

Since 2006, the state has set the standard for comprehensive suicide prevention care — from its centralized statewide 24/7 crisis line with a $10 million annual budget and 400 plus full-time employees in downtown Atlanta to dozens of crisis stabilization centers, community mental health facilities and mobile crisis units serving all 159 counties.

Arizona, California, Colorado, New Mexico, New York City and Utah also have made substantial investments in suicide prevention. Even so, Draper said, roughly 60% of the nation’s suicide prevention call centers still receive no funding to answer calls forwarded from the national lifeline number.

As a result, the volume of calls that rolls over to national centers is rising. That’s less than ideal, since call centers are far more effective when the professionals who answer the calls are familiar with local mental health resources, which enables them to set up appointments, locate available psychiatric beds and, when needed, send a mobile crisis unit directly to the caller.

When calls come through Georgia’s statewide suicide prevention number, the licensed mental health professionals who answer the lines use a software system called “care-traffic control” to identify nearby mental health services with available appointments and beds, if needed.

The system also allows crisis line operators to access the callers’ medical records, so they can suggest clinicians, doctors and medical facilities they may have been to before.

Hotline History

The first local suicide prevention call line was established in 1958 in Los Angeles.

After that, local hotlines began to proliferate around the country. In Georgia, 27 regional hotlines were created over a 15-year period, until the state decided to close them in 2006 and create a statewide center in Atlanta.

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Christine Vestal

Christine Vestal covers mental health and drug addiction for Stateline. Previously, she covered health care for McGraw-Hill and the Financial Times.