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Lifeline and Hotlines

By Lidia S. Bernik, M.H.S., C.P.H., Associate Project Director, National Suicide Prevention Lifeline

Each year, over 30,000 individuals die by suicide in the United States, but many more make a suicide attempt, plan their suicide or seriously struggle with suicidal thoughts. Fortunately, those who are struggling have access to free and confidential life-saving services at any time of day or night. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (the Lifeline) is a national, 24-hour, toll-free suicide prevention service comprised of 150 independently operated crisis centers across the nation. Funded by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), the Lifeline network enables individuals calling 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to be routed to their closest crisis center.

In 2007, evaluation studies of crisis hotlines, which were sponsored by SAMHSA and employed monitoring of hotline calls and follow-up calls, demonstrated the vital role that hotlines play in helping those in need. These groundbreaking studies, which were conducted by highly respected suicide prevention researchers Drs. Madelyn Gould, John Kalafat and Brian Mishara found that people in crisis (both emotional and suicidal) did in fact call hotlines and that they experienced significant reductions in emotional distress and suicidality during the call and further reductions in emotional distress upon follow-up. Most notably, when suicidal callers were asked during follow-up what was most helpful about calling the hotline, 12% indicated that the call to the hotline had saved their life.

Crisis hotlines offer a number of benefits, including:

  • 24-hour access to trained counselors that can offer supportive counseling and assessment
  • Immediate life-saving assistance to individuals in acute suicidal crisis who are unable or unwilling to obtain other help
  • Easy linkage to an array of local services for emotionally distressed callers either before a suicidal crisis occurs or during a suicidal crisis
  • Expertise in community suicide prevention education & training

Hotlines are especially helpful in rural areas or communities where there is limited access to mental health services. They also offer a very economical way of reaching a very large population – a characteristic that is particularly salient for states/communities with limited funding available for suicide prevention and/or mental health services. Additionally, hotlines can help reduce costs by:

  • Helping decrease unnecessary visits to emergency rooms and inappropriate calls to law enforcement
  • Efficiently linking callers in need to appropriate services
  • Counseling, supporting and assessing a large number of consumers for a fraction of the cost that it would take to provide these services in person

Since its launch in 2005, the Lifeline network has answered over 2 million calls from individuals in crisis across the United States. Overall, Lifeline centers answer over 60,000 calls per month and call volume continues to increase at a steady pace. While crisis hotlines participating in the Lifeline network vary in size, scope and structure, they are all equally committed to helping those in need and demonstrate their dedication by adhering to evidence-based standards through their participation in the Lifeline network.

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