Flood Of Calls And Texts To Crisis Hotlines Reflects Americans' Rising Anxiety | WCAI

Flood Of Calls And Texts To Crisis Hotlines Reflects Americans' Rising Anxiety

May 4, 2020
Originally published on May 4, 2020 4:37 pm

Normally, Laura Mayer helps the most acutely suicidal callers find the nearest hospital emergency room. But in a pandemic, that has become a crisis counselor's advice of last resort.

"It's a difficult decision because we do know that by sending them into an overburdened health care system, they may or may not get the treatment that they need," says Mayer, who is director of PRS CrisisLink in Oakton, Va., which also takes calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. "The resources may or may not be there, and we're exposing them to the illness."

So instead, counselors are devoting more time to each caller, offering ad hoc therapy and coaxing them to talk through their pain. These days, that pain often has many sources: lost jobs, severed relationships and sick family.

"The type of call and the seriousness of the call is very different this year than it was in previous years," Mayer says. "There's environmental issues, internal issues, family issues. ... It's never one thing."

America's crisis centers and hotlines are themselves in crisis. As people grapple with fear, loneliness and grief, on a grand scale, those stresses are showing up at crisis hotlines. Not only are the needs greater, but their clients' problems are more acute and complex and offer a window into the emotional struggles Americans face.

Across the board, hotlines of all kinds are reporting increases in volume.

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw a fivefold increase at its National Helpline between the beginning and end of March. The Crisis Text Line says its volumes are up 40% in the pandemic, to about 100,000 conversations a month.

Volunteer counselors and good Samaritans are responding by lining up to help.

But Mayer says the heaviness takes its toll. Those offering this kind of support end up needing support themselves.

"This illness is starting to impact each of our crisis workers and counselors themselves personally," she says. "So everyone is kind of a client right now, and that's been really challenging."

Nancy Lublin, CEO and co-founder of the Crisis Text Line, says she is bracing for sustained need. "This echo of the physical virus, the mental health echo, we fear it's going to last a very long time and that the intensity will remain," she says.

Over the last two months, the focal point of the emotional pain has shifted, she says. Initially, the spike in traffic was over anxiety about the virus itself. That shifted to complaints of isolation. Now, texters talk of depression and grief.

"So we've doubled the number of conversations that are about grief, and there the top two words that we see are 'grandma' and 'grandpa,' " she says.

And it's no longer just young people texting. Adults are complaining of loneliness, sexual abuse and eating disorders.

"As the quarantines go on and continue, we're seeing it's the people over the age of 35 who are increasing at a higher percentage of our volume," Lublin says. "For the first time, we're seeing people over the age of 60 texting us."

Texting is an ideal medium, she says, for those stuck at home with no personal space: "You don't have to find a quiet space where no one else can hear you."

And for some, that might be the only form of escape. The text line has seen a 74% increase in references to domestic violence. "We see words like 'trapped' [and] 'hurt,' " says Lublin.

Many shelters have shut down, and some of those in-person centers, including the Salvation Army in Philadelphia, now rely on their own hotlines instead.

Arielle Curry, director of the Salvation Army's anti-human trafficking program, says many of her clients can't afford cell phones and have lost touch; those who remain in contact are in dire straits, searching for a shorter supply of money or drugs, and are often suicidal. Curry says addressing those acute emotional needs by phone is frustrating; sometimes she doesn't even know where they are and can't send help to intervene.

"You can't ... comfort someone and look them in their eyes and support them face-to-face," she says. That makes it hard, Curry says, not to feel helpless and hopeless herself.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Americans try to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic - isolation, anxiety, stress, to name a few - the crisis centers that help people are themselves in crisis. Not only are needs greater, the problems are more acute and complex. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports those calls offer a window into the emotional struggles Americans are facing.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Normally, Laura Mayer helps suicidal callers find the nearest hospital emergency room. But in a pandemic, that's now a crisis counselor's advice of last resort.

LAURA MAYER: It's a difficult decision because we do know that by sending them into an overburdened health care system, they may or may not get the treatment that they need. The resources may or may not be there. And we're exposing them to the illness.

NOGUCHI: So instead, counselors are devoting much more time to each caller, offering ad hoc therapy, coaxing them to talk through their pain. But, of course, these days, that pain often has many sources - lost jobs, severed relationships and sick family. Mayer is director of PRS CrisisLink in Oakton, Va. It's one of many centers taking calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. She says call volumes are up, but that's not even the biggest challenge.

MAYER: That type of call and the seriousness of the call is very different this year than it was in previous years. There's environmental issues, internal issues, family issues, difficult things. It's never one thing.

NOGUCHI: As people grapple with fear, loneliness and grief at global scale, those stresses are showing up on crisis hotlines. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw a five-fold increase in its help line in March. Mental health problems, in other words, are multiplying. Volunteer counselors and good Samaritans are lining up to help, but Mayer says those offering this kind of support end up needing support themselves.

MAYER: This illness is starting to impact each of our crisis workers and counselors themselves personally. And so we're dealing with the crisis outside of our homes. And we're now dealing with the crisis inside of our homes. And so everyone is kind of a client right now, and that's been really challenging.

NOGUCHI: It's the same at other hotlines. Nancy Lublin is CEO and founder of The Crisis Text Line, which has seen volumes increase 40% since the pandemic.

NANCY LUBLIN: This echo of the physical virus, the mental health echo, we fear is going to last a very long time and that the intensity will remain.

NOGUCHI: Initially, traffic spiked over anxiety about the virus itself. That shifted to complaints of isolation. Now, texters talk of depression and grief.

LUBLIN: We have doubled the number of conversations that are about grief. The top two words that we see there are grandma and grandpa.

NOGUCHI: And it's no longer just young people. Adults complain of loneliness, sexual abuse and eating disorders.

LUBLIN: We're seeing it's the people over the age of 35 who are increasing at a higher percentage of our volume. For the first time, we're seeing people over the age of 60 texting us.

NOGUCHI: Lublin says texting is ideal for those stuck at home with no personal space.

LUBLIN: You don't have to find a quiet space where no one else can hear you.

NOGUCHI: And for some, that's the only form of escape.

LUBLIN: We've had a 74% increase in domestic violence conversations. We see words like trapped, hurt.

NOGUCHI: Many shelters have shut down. Some rely on their own hotlines instead. That's true for the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. Arielle Curry is director of its anti-human trafficking program. Many of her clients can't afford cellphones and have lost touch. Those that remain in contact are in dire straits, often suicidal. Curry says addressing those acute needs by phone is frustrating.

ARIELLE CURRY: How do you do that when you can't, one, comfort someone to lock them in their eyes and support them face to face and show your body language, that you're there and you're supporting them?

NOGUCHI: Sometimes it's hard, she admits, not to feel helpless and hopeless herself. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

KELLY: And a reminder that if you or someone you know is in crisis, please call a crisis hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.