Inside the National Suicide Hotline: Preventing the Next Tragedy

As U.S. suicide rates rise, experts are divided over which strategies save more lives

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Kevin Hines paced along the Golden Gate Bridge, trying to figure out whether to obey the voices in his head urging him to jump. Anyone paying the slightest attention to Hines should’ve seen that something was horribly wrong. Sure enough, after about a half-hour, a woman approached him. Hines thought she was there to save his life.

Instead, she was a tourist wanting Hines to take her picture. The look of desperation on his face apparently didn’t register. Elation crumpled into despair. “Nobody cares,” he thought. “Absolutely nobody cares.”

Hines soon hurdled a railing, stepped out onto a ledge 25 stories above San Francisco Bay and jumped. He immediately regretted it. Falling 75 miles an hour headfirst toward the water, Hines realized that if he was going to save himself, he had to hit feet first. So he threw his head back right before he plunged 80 feet into the cold waters, shattering two of his lower vertebrae. He eventually surfaced and was rescued by the Coast Guard. Only one out of 50 who jump survive.

Thirteen years removed from his attempt, Hines is now an author and lecturer, and doing quite well considering his experience. Hines frequently travels around the country talking about what happened on September 25, 2000. Diagnosed with bipolar disorder, he still has auditory and visual hallucinations as well as paranoid delusions. But today, he has a support network of family and friends that check up on him and identify early warning signs that could lead to Hines harming himself again. He logs his symptoms into an online document he shares with others so they can keep an eye on him. Hines says that’s what separates him from so many others who have suicidal thoughts.

“When you learn to be self-aware with mental illness, you can save your own life,” Hines says.

In May, the Centers for Disease Control released data showing that in 2010, 38,364 people weren’t able to save themselves. For the first time, the number of suicides surpassed deaths from motor vehicle accidents and most researchers believe that number is low, if anything, because many suicides go unreported. The suicide rate for Americans aged 35 to 64 rose 28.4 percent from 1999 to 2010. According to the CDC, $35 billion is lost due to medical bills and work loss costs related to suicide each year. And while suicide rates are not as high as they were in the early 1990s, they’ve climbed steadily upward since 2005.

As more Americans commit suicide, some in the field question the effectiveness of current prevention programs. Over the last 15 years, public policy and federal funding have shifted toward a broader mental wellness movement aimed at helping people deal with anxiety and depression that could eventually lead to suicidality. But that shift may have left those most at-risk of suicide, like Hines, without the support they need.

One program sits at the intersection of those two approaches. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which expects 1.1 million to 1.2 million calls this year and receives about 15 percent more callers each year, is broadly marketed to the general public through billboards and ads that reach those suffering from anxiety, depression and loneliness but are often not actively suicidal. At the same time, it’s an emergency resource for those who are at immediate risk of killing themselves and who struggle with chronic mental illness. But some in the field question its effectiveness, along with the effectiveness of many other services and programs funded and promoted on a national scale. Those in the field often use the metaphor of a river to illustrate the divide: Is it worth getting to more people upstream or narrowly targeting those like Hines downstream?

At the Waterfall

The bridge phone inside New York City’s suicide prevention call center only rings about once a month. But when it does, often in the middle of the night, it emits distinct, deep chirps – as if the phone itself is in distress. The operators manning the 24/7 LifeNet hotline recognize the ring immediately. It means someone’s calling from one of the area’s 11 bridges, and they’re likely thinking about jumping.

LifeNet, a mental health and suicide prevention hotline servicing New York’s metropolitan area, is located in the H2H Connect Crisis Contact Center, which serves as one of 161 call centers that make up the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network, headquartered in the same building. During its busiest hours from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., the hotline has roughly 20 operators working the phones inside their unassuming L-shaped office space in lower Manhattan. The operators could easily be mistaken for a collection of telemarketers. The large computer screen at the head of the call center showing the number of lines being processed could easily reside inside QVC’s customer service center.

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You don’t get a sense of what truly happens in this room until you run across the bridge phone, which is a direct line to the call center. It’s LifeNet’s equivalent of the Oval Office’s mythical red phone. On the wall above it, black Ikea picture frames display detailed information for each bridge and the locations of its call boxes: “Northbound 3rd Avenue Exit,” “Westbound Light Pole 60.” If someone calls, they can use the caller ID, check the information above the phone and immediately locate the caller and send help.

If it were up to those who work at LifeNet, however, they would get rid of the bridge phone altogether. “What we want is to get people upstream,” says John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. “We don’t necessarily want to get people who are on the edge of the waterfall. If they are, we can help them. But it’s a huge cost savings for the entire mental health system if you can get people further upstream.”

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