The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline saw calls double from 2014 to 2017, an increase that coincides with rising suicide rates in the USA.
The lifeline answered more than 2 million calls in 2017, up from 1 million calls in 2014, according to its latest figures. More than 1.5 million calls reached the prevention network in 2015 and again in 2016.
The nationwide group includes more than 150 crisis centers, plus national backup centers to assist local lines.
The recent high-profile suicides of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain have led to more public attention about the issue and various helpline services available nationwide, prompting more people to call.
"Due to media events and increased public awareness of suicide prevention and the lifeline’s services, more people are aware of this resource and are getting help and support," spokeswoman Frances Gonzalez said. "The lifeline has been proven to de-escalate moments of crisis and help people find hope."
Suicide rates increased more than 25 percent from 1999 to 2016, according to the latest figures by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released June 7.
Cindy Miller, executive director of FirstLink crisis center in North Dakota, said another reason helplines are experiencing an increase in calls is that more people share information about mental health on social media.
FirstLink fielded 6,533 calls in 2017 – a spike from 2,512 the previous 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 support."
Rutgers University Behavioral Health Care saw a jump in calls over the past five years. For example, the New Jersey crisis center answered 3,699 calls in May, up from 1,390 calls in June 2013.
"This work is like a busy emergency room to some degree, even though the patients aren’t physically here with us," clinical supervisor William Zimmermann said. "It’s busy, hectic, demanding work at times.”
Zimmermann said the crisis center opened more phone lines, especially overnight when calls to suicide hotlines tend to increase.
More calls mean more people are reaching out for help, said John Reusser, executive director of the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline. Last year, the hotline received 9,531 contacts, which include calls, chats and texts – up from 2,869 contacts in 2014.
FirstLink's Emily Carpenter said much of the increase is due to its callback program, which gives people released from mental health facilities or hospitals the option 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," said Carpenter, the center's database and resource specialist. "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.”
She said some callers worry that volunteers and employees on the other end of the line will call police or emergency workers, even if the person just wants to talk.
“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."
Jennie Rylee said she was motivated to volunteer at the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline 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."
Listening to those struggling is the primary goal. “The bulk of our training is listening with empathy and compassion," Rylee said. “We’re here to allow you an opportunity to be heard.”
Some crisis center volunteers and employees go beyond answering calls and chats. Jennifer Illich, director of helpline operations at FirstLink, said employees give handwritten cards of support to callers enrolled in the callback program. Illich said she spoke with a former caller who uses the card as a reminder to reach out if needed.
"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."
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline can be reached at 1-800-273-8255.