Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide

Research and advice on preventing teen and adult suicide

How a Little Phone Call Can Make a Big Difference

The impact of a suicide prevention hotline

I'm often asked if suicide prevention hotlines have seen an increase in calls over the last several years.

The assumption people are working with is that things are worse - bad economy, endless wars, job loss - and the hope they're working with is that people will reach out.

So when I had the pleasure of hearing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline's director John Draper speak last week, I was happy to hear that the Lifeline has seen an increase in call volume.

It's actually a huge increase, worth noting. In 2005, the Lifeline received about 50,000 calls. Now, the Lifeline is getting over 550,000 calls. The Lifeline has been promoting itself through old and new media, from magnets (I saw one affixed to an actual phone booth in Las Vegas last year) to a Facebook page. Also, for better and for worse, suicide has been getting a lot of press, which has meant that suicide prevention has been getting a lot of press. Media that want to contribute to effective suicide prevention put the Lifeline number in their stories so that people who are in need of help know where they can call.

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In 2007, researchers published the first of a series of articles evaluating the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They wanted to know if the hotline was reaching people who were suicidal and if interacting with hotline staff helped decrease suicidal thoughts and behavior. 

What they found was that half of the callers surveyed had a plan for their suicide. Eight percent of callers surveyed called in the middle of a suicide attempt. Half of callers surveyed had a prior history of suicide attempts (a history of suicide attempts is a critical risk factor for suicide).

At the end of the call and when contacted three weeks later, callers reported decreased feelings of confusion, anger, anxiety, helplessness, and hopelessness, all factors that can contribute to suicidal thoughts, plans, or attempts. When asked directly, callers did report that they had fewer suicidal thoughts, plans, and attempts.

What's fascinating to me is that callers got all this from talking briefly with a stranger.

I've often thought of a hotline as a relatively old-school method for preventing suicide. Research has demonstrated the great impact of a newer school, what are called "environmental interventions," like building bridge barriers or restricting access to other lethal means. But the results from the evaluation of the Lifeline make a compelling argument for the simplest of interventions: connection to another human being.

Citation: Kalafat, J., Gould, M. S., Munfakh, J. L. H., Kleinman, M. S. (2007). An evaluation of crisis hotline outcomes. Part I: Suicidal crisis callers. Suicide & Life-Threatening Behavior, 37, 322-337.

Copyright 2011 Elana Premack Sandler, All Rights Reserved

Elana Premack Sandler, M.S.W., M.P.H., is a public health social worker specializing in violence and injury prevention and adolescent health promotion.

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