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Suicide-related crisis calls in N.H. have decreased since start of pandemic

  • Kenneth Norton Alan L. MacRae

Granite State News Collaborative
Published: 5/22/2020 5:29:50 PM
Modified: 5/22/2020 5:29:38 PM

Suicide-related crisis calls in New Hampshire have declined since the start of the pandemic, according to state mental health experts. 

“In a lot of ways, that’s not unusual. When there has been a crisis in the past, although this has been unlike anything I’ve ever experienced, people often kind of pull things together a little bit,” said Kenneth Norton, executive director of NAMI New Hampshire, the state chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

Suicide-related calls received by Headrest, New Hampshire’s suicide hotline based in Lebanon, are usually steady at about 150 calls per month. But Cameron Ford, executive director of the nonprofit, says there were 110 calls in April.

But that doesn’t mean that fewer people were in crisis last month, Norton says. The lower call volume is likely the result of a variety of factors, including lack of privacy to make phone calls, concerns about COVID, and an avoidance of emergency rooms and hospitals.

Though suicide calls are down, calls to the national disaster hotline, which fields mental health-related calls, are up by 900% to 1,000%.

But this month has been a sort of “calm before the storm,” Ford said, and calls are expected to pick up again soon to at least normal levels.

The Lancet, an international medical journal, writes that a rise in suicide rates are often associated with a rise in unemployment rates, a trend experts saw during the 2008 financial crisis.

“We fully expect that the longer that the lockdown goes on, people are going to become more anxious. If their funding, their food is running out, things like that, people are going to become more anxious and we expect a spike in calls anytime,” Ford said.

“I think the largest concern in the suicide prevention community is what happens after COVID,” Norton said. “With challenges that we’re facing with jobs and economic factors and schools being closed and what not, families and people are under a lot of stress. We’re watching that closely to see how that impacts on people’s mental health.”

Norton says that law enforcement, first responders and health care workers are generally at higher risk for suicide, and the impact of the COVID-19 crisis on essential workers’ mental health is a concern.

According to 2018 data from the New Hampshire Suicide Prevention Task Force, suicide death rates in New Hampshire are higher than the national average and on the rise. Nationally, deaths by suicide have been rising sharply since the 1990s.

The number of deaths deemed suicides in New Hampshire this year is so far not higher than in previous years, according to Jake Leon at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS), but those numbers have been confirmed only through March of this year. It might be awhile before we know exactly how the COVID-19 crisis has impacted suicide deaths because of cases pending investigation. 

The state is making efforts to get ahead of the curve by applying for an emergency suicide prevention grant through the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

The grant, if received, will direct more funds toward suicide prevention training, enhancing services for victims of domestic violence, establishing follow-up procedures for adults who have recently attempted suicide or experienced a mental health crisis, and more.

“The department is seeking to leverage all funding sources and opportunities to prepare for and address what is likely going to be a greater demand for behavioral health services, including mental health and substance use, because of the COVID-19 global pandemic,” Leon said in an email.

“[Following up] is something we’ve always done, but it’s not been at a high level and we want to increase that significantly, because when we talk to someone and we’ve talked them down from where they were, we try to create a plan,” Ford said, “so whatever that plan is, you follow up with them and you say, how did that go?”

Maine’s statewide crisis hotline, in addition to telephone services, has live text and chat services available as well. Ford says New Hampshire is currently working toward its own statewide text line. The additional option may make mental health crisis counseling more accessible to some, especially at a time when total privacy at home may not be a realistic option for some.

In such an emotionally taxing and uncertain time, it is important to acknowledge losses that have resulted from the pandemic, whether they be loss of a routine, job or loved one. 

“Making an intentional effort to stay connected with people is really important too, so that we don’t let social distancing become social isolation,” Norton said.

Those who feel they may be at risk of suicide should call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK. Those who are experiencing a mental health crisis but not at immediate risk of suicide should dial New Hampshire’s 24-hour crisis hotline: (603) 448-4400. For more useful resources and crisis hotlines, please visit NAMI NH’s website.

(These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.) 




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