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Crisis Support Lines: What Are We Missing?

Examining crisis lines research to better prepare for the implementation of 988.

Key points

  • Existing research on crisis lines is weak, mostly focusing on short-term improvements.
  • The rise of technology-based crisis support systems beg for additional research and ethical use of private information.
  • A push for culturally-informed training and evaluation for volunteers is needed.
  • State and federal-level planning, in addition to all-inclusive crisis systems, are vital to successful 988 implementation.

By Sasha Zabelski, MS, Ph.D. student, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Public Health Sciences; Robert J. Cramer, Ph.D., Associate Professor & Irwin Belk Distinguished Scholar in Health Research, University of North Carolina, Charlotte, Public Health Sciences

Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Alexander Andrews on Unsplash

Suicide is still a leading cause of death worldwide. Thankfully, the U.S. is finally trying to tackle the problem from a policy perspective. The 2020 National Suicide Hotline Designation Act sets up our nationwide transition to 988—the mental health equivalent of 911. This type of crisis line is a key part of suicide prevention.

My research team at UNC Charlotte reviewed the current status of crisis lines. We did so to provide education for the public and better inform training and practice. Here’s what we found:

What Do We Know About the Mental Health Impacts During and After a Crisis Call?

While there is limited research on the immediate and long-term outcomes for those that call the crisis lines, existing research shows that overall distress and suicidal thoughts tend to decrease both during and right after the phone call. Overall, those who call say they feel 43 percent less distressed by the time they finish their call. There have also been some promising long-term outcomes for those who call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline including a reduction in hopelessness, psychache, depression, and anxiety.

However, despite every caller being provided with referrals to follow up with after their call, only 33 to 42 percent report contacting a referral that was provided for them. One current helpful practice implemented by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has included a follow-up call, which happens within days after an initial call. Eighty percent of people said that this call stopped them from killing themselves, and 90 percent stated that the call kept them safe from engaging in any other self-harm.

Chat and Text Lines: New Ways of Tackling Mental Health Crises

One branch of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is the Lifeline Chat. Studies conducted on the effectiveness of the chat line have been minimal so far. Research examining the Lifeline chat services indicates that most individuals find the chat services helpful, but 50 percent of people still felt suicidal after being in contact with the chat line.

The Crisis Text Line is also widely available; however, it is not affiliated with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Data gathered by the Crisis Text Line suggests that contacts are mostly comprised of texters under the age of 25. The Crisis Text Line data indicates a high number of contacts coming from low-income urban neighborhoods, leaving a large gap in individuals contacting the text line from rural areas. The COVID-19 pandemic led to an increase in crisis texts, with the biggest increases occurring among children, specifically lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, and other (LGBTQ+) youth.

What Resources Exist for Persons with Higher Suicide Risk?

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline has expanded to include options for Spanish speakers and individuals who are deaf or hard-of-hearing. Beyond the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, other non-profit organizations have created hotlines for populations at high risk of suicide. These hotlines may lead certain populations to be more likely to access crisis care; for example, nearly half of callers to an LGBTQ+ youth crisis hotline stated that they would not have contacted a non-LGBTQ+ hotline and that they felt more comfortable speaking to counselors that were trained in affirming sexual and gender minority individuals.

Another high-risk population with its own hotline is The Veterans Crisis Line (VCL). This crisis line was established in 2007 and has completed over one million referrals to Veterans Affairs Suicide Prevention Coordinators. A high number (80 percent) of veterans that call the line stated that calling the hotline stopped them from killing themselves. Additionally, it has been shown that the veterans crisis chat line was used as the first contact with mental health services for many veterans receiving referrals and following up with services post-call.

Where Do Crisis Support Lines Go From Here?

Recommendation 1: Improve the multicultural aspects of crisis lines.

All research conducted on crisis support lines in the United States so far gives us limited knowledge of how these lines operate, who they serve, and how effective they are. There has been almost no research showing how much volunteer training affects mental health and suicidal outcomes in the long term for callers. One study indicated that the referrals offered during the call were not appropriate due to not having insurance or the right type of insurance to access the service.

Research has shown that in order for individuals to have relevant skills for intervention, updated, frequent suicide prevention training should be provided. Therefore, hotline volunteers should have required follow-up or refresher training to keep their knowledge fresh and to have a better understanding of the caller’s specific needs, including any barriers they made be facing in accessing services (e.g., transportation, therapists accepting Medicaid).

Several high-risk groups (e.g., American Indians, Alaska Natives, and people struggling with suicide loss) have not been mentioned in the crisis support line literature. Although there are currently individual crisis lines that serve veterans, LGBTQ+, Spanish speakers, and hard of hearing individuals, we could not find any research evaluating how culturally sensitive and non-discriminatory volunteers are when speaking with marginalized populations. We recommend developing staff training and evaluation that targets cultural humility, racism, and discrimination. It has previously been shown that culturally informed suicide prevention trainings have been effective and are needed by communities at risk.

Recommendation 2: We need more research on newer approaches to crisis support.

Newer branches of crisis support lines—including chat and text—have shown some promise though research is still limited in understanding how effective they are in preventing suicide. The new 988 number will also be offered as a text line option, likely leading to an increase in individuals using the text service.

Unfortunately, due to the limited studies, we are not yet sure whether people will find this type of line helpful. We should continue studying how chat and text lines affect suicide and mental health outcomes during and after contact. Additionally, chat and text lines should work to understand whether other high-risk populations are contacting their lines and, if not, how they can make the lines accessible for all.

Recommendation 3: Pay attention to ethics.

With the sensitive information shared on these lines, it is important to keep crisis lines accountable. One way to ensure this is by clearly informing the user before they begin a conversation on the ways in which their data is being handled and allowing those that use these lines to delete their data after contacting the organization. All crisis lines can work towards providing a more comprehensive and transparent conversation with callers, texters, and chat users about privacy, data, and trust.

Recommendation 4: Devote more funding to crisis lines.

Funding the overall crisis system can help provide resources to call centers, volunteers, and other issues mentioned above. Transitioning to 988 will likely lead to an increase in calls, and crisis lines may be unprepared to handle the subsequent issues.

With this in mind, we hope that all states adopt funding measures that will cover the cost of sustaining call centers and create a robust system for all. Funding will help train volunteers in providing culturally competent services, data privacy, and enhanced de-escalation skills.

Finally, funding can be provided to researchers who can continue to study the effectiveness and helpfulness of crisis support lines. The current gaps in practice and research that have been identified are strongly the result of underfunding evidence-based practices and systems as a whole.

Edited By: Ashley M. Votruba, J.D., Ph.D., SPSSI Blog Editor, Assistant Professor, University of Nebraska - Lincoln


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