Suicide Hotlines Are Facing a Surge

Mental health call centers around New York are dealing with coronavirus-related anxieties

Many suicide and mental health hotlines in New York have seen a rise in the number of calls they receive since the pandemic hit. For instance, The National Alliance on Mental Health in New York has had a 60 percent increase in the number of calls to its helpline, according Matt Kudish, the group’s executive director. NYC Well has received about 50 percent more calls, according to Kelly Clarke, director. And at the end of March, the newly founded New York State COVID-19 Emotional Support Hotline received more than 8,000 calls in five days. 

Experts are wary of predicting that suicide rates—given coronavirus fears, coupled with self isolation and economic uncertainty—could skyrocket. “It’s premature to make those predictions because we don’t have the data yet,” said.Regina Miranda, a professor of psychology at Hunter College and the Lab Director of the Laboratory for the Study of Youth Cognition and Suicide,

Still, she worries. Those at the greatest risk for suicide now are those that were considering it before coronavirus, according to Miranda. “But also those who may have increased social isolation, have access to lethal methods, and where there may be greater interpersonal conflict in the home,” she said. 

For some people, the coronavirus has increased the kind of stressors that could trigger a suicide attempt, according to experts—economic problems and isolation, for example. However, for others, the coronavirus may alleviate some stressors. For example, some teenagers, the age group most likely to attempt suicide in New York City, may be less stressed because certain social and academic triggers may have diminished now that school is virtual. 

While staying home may lower stress for some, disconnection from school or work or friends can make it more difficult for people to access mental health resources. Self-isolation means that there are fewer “gatekeepers” to refer individuals to support, Miranda said. 

Yet while many mental health resources are harder to access nowadays, hotlines are easy to reach from home. Dutchess County’s 24/7 Crisis Helpline fields calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The line generally receives about 3,500 calls a month, mostly from people in Dutchess County, where many New York City commuters live. Over the last month or two, according to  Mary Babcock, Clinical Unit Administrator at Dutchess County’s Crisis Helpline, operators have seen an increase in the number of calls and texts they receive. Forty-three percent of the calls operators received in April were “crisis calls,” 6 percent higher than in April of last year. Additionally, the Helpline received twice the number of texts last month as it did in April 2019. 

Photo by Rafael Castillo from Flikr Commons. No changes have been made.

The Helpline was prepared to field more calls this time of year anyway, even before coronavirus. The spring months are known as suicide season, because suicide rates are highest between March and August, according to the U.S. Center for Disease Control. 

But people call the Crisis Helpline for many different reasons, not just suicidal thoughts, according to Babcock. For example, the line has seen a surge in calls about domestic violence and anxiety lately.  “Our calls today, people were saying this is getting to feel big,” Babcock said. “Now, this is heavy, and this is feeling longer and overwhelming.” 

Bridget Hoffer, who has been an operator at Dutchess County Helpline for nine years, says she has been getting many calls from the hotline’s “regulars,” people who struggled with their mental health before the pandemic. Coronavirus-related stress has impacted their mental well-being, according to Hoffer. “We know their baseline,” she said. “I think that it is more than fair to say that this is making them feel more anxious and more isolated.”

Babcock and Hoffer noted that people bring up anxieties about their economic situations time and time again. But while they can predict that people will be concerned about their finances, they say they cannot predict much else. “You absolutely never know what is going to come in, you can literally go from one person just needing an appointment to someone who is actively suicidal, with means in their hands,” Hoffer said. Calls can be from “talking to someone whose loved one is on a ventilator, and it’s not looking good, to someone who’s already had a loss, or to somebody else who’s afraid that they’re the next person in line,” Babcock added. 

Hotline operators cannot work from home because they need to maintain the callers’ privacy and because it could be dangerous for hotline operators to deal with the trauma of tough calls alone. Operators at the Dutchess County Helpline all work in one room, with their desks six feet apart. There is a screen on the far wall that indicates, via monitoring and police reports, if a potential jumper is on a bridge nearby. In the corner of the room, there is a cushy reclining chair for operators who have worked a double shift, or have had a particularly grueling day. 

As the calls keep coming, operators may need to take on more double shifts, according to Babcock.  

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