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Courtesy of University of Utah Health

Here’s what happens when you call the suicide prevention hotline

By Liesl Nielsen, KSL.com | Posted - Sep 12th, 2018 @ 3:28pm



SALT LAKE CITY — For clinical social worker Allie, the opportunity to help those who may be on the verge of harming themselves more than compensates for the stress that comes with being the voice on the other end of the suicide prevention hotline.

“There are times when I’ve spent hours on the phone with somebody who is going to make a (suicide) attempt and has a weapon in hand,” said Allie, who asked KSL.com not to include her last name for safety reasons. “When you reframe life for somebody or validate their experience, it’s very meaningful to them.”

In fact, Allie sees it as a privilege to speak to people during their “absolute worst moment.”

In honor of World Suicide Prevention Week, KSL.com called the national suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to find out what happens when someone in distress dials the number.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free, confidential support 24 hours a day, seven days a week for anyone of any age — including non-English speakers and the deaf.

When you call, you will first hear an automated message:

“You have reached the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, also servicing the veterans' service line. If you are in emotional distress or suicidal crisis or are concerned about someone who might be, we’re here to help. Please remain on the line while we route your call to the nearest crisis center in our network.”

After ensuring that you do not want assistance in a different language or from the veterans’ service, the line will redirect to the nearest crisis center.

If you have an 801, 435 or 385 area code, you will be immediately rerouted to the statewide crisis line at the University of Utah’s University Neuropsychiatric Institute, where licensed mental health professionals are prepared to take calls all hours of the day.

If you have moved out of Utah but still have a local area code, you can ask hotline workers to transfer your call to the crisis center in the state where you currently live, according to Allie. Hotline workers can also transfer callers to crisis centers in specific Utah counties, which can be helpful for those who need help finding local resources, she said.

Suicide Prevention Resources
If you or someone you know is struggling with thoughts of suicide, call the suicide prevention hotline at 1-800-273-TALK.

Crisis Hotlines

  • National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Statewide/Salt Lake County Crisis Line: 801-587-3000
  • Utah County Crisis Line: 801-691-5433
  • Wasatch Mental Health Crisis Line: 801-373-7393
  • Trevor Project Hotline for LGBTQ teens: 1-866-488-7386

Online Resources

While wait times may vary depending on location and time of day, KSL.com’s call was answered by a live person 42 seconds after the national hotline number was dialed. Allie from the University Neuropsychiatric Institute answered the phone almost immediately after the call was rerouted to the local center.

What happens when the hotline worker answers the phone?

The first thing a mental health professional will do when they answer the phone is a quick “safety assessment,” Allie said. Is the person on the other line calling about someone they’re worried about, do they simply need emotional support or are they in crisis?

Often, callers aren’t quite able to articulate what they need, so Allie will ask them if they’re having a mental health crisis or if they’re safe “right now.” If they say they’re not safe, she seeks to clarify what that means and whether they are thinking about harming or killing themselves.

If the caller is someone who just needs to talk, they’ll talk. If the caller is in crisis, Allie will try and determine the history behind the caller’s suicidal ideation and any specific stressors in their life. This can help determine whether the caller’s crisis stems from a situational circumstance or long-standing mental illness, she said.

Are they in psychological pain? Do they feel like there’s any hope? Do they feel their family would be better off without them?

If someone has picked up the phone and called the hotline, it means they want help, Allie said. She’ll often ask people about what she calls “protective factors” or relationships in the caller’s life that might give them hope — usually children, family or sometimes even a cat or dog, she added.

She’ll also ask the caller about their personal beliefs and the value of life. Do they have a belief or belief system that is important to them? Are they able to talk about the future? Hotline workers will often help the caller create a safety plan or agenda to follow during a mental health crisis in the future.

The institute also has a peer support team made up of individuals who have, themselves, struggled with mental health issues, addictions and other issues that callers normally experience. Members of the peer support team often speak to callers during nonemergency situations, Allie said.

“(Callers) are going to be treated with respect,” Allie said. “Our main goal is to help somebody through a crisis. … If they need help, we will get help to them the best that we can if they’re not safe.”

Warning signs of suicide
  • Talking about wanting to die
  • Looking for a way to kill oneself
  • Talking about feeling hopeless or having no purpose
  • Talking about feeling trapped or in unbearable pain
  • Talking about being a burden to others
  • Increasing the use of alcohol or drugs
  • Acting anxious, agitated or reckless
  • Sleeping too little or too much
  • Withdrawing or feeling isolated
  • Showing rage or talking about seeking revenge
  • Displaying extreme mood swings

The more of these signs a person shows, the greater the risk. Warning signs are associated with suicide but may not be what causes a suicide.

Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What to do if you see warning signs of suicide

  • Do not leave the person alone
  • Remove any firearms, alcohol, drugs or sharp objects that could be used in a suicide attempt
  • Call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Take the person to an emergency room or seek help from a medical or mental health professional
Information from the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

What if I'm in immediate danger?

“If we have somebody that is in crisis — they indicate they’ve got a weapon in hand or they’ve overdosed — then it becomes our responsibility to getting active rescue to them,” Allie said.

This can be difficult, she added, if the person on the other line can’t or won’t give the hotline their location. For the worker on the other line, it becomes a race to find as much information about the caller’s location as quickly as they can.

If the caller hasn’t blocked their phone number, the worker can usually use the number to find a name and location — though that has become increasingly difficult since Facebook changed its privacy policies and no longer makes phone numbers public information, Allie said.

Hotline workers will also reach out to police on some occasions and ask them to “ping” the phone so officers can find the caller’s location and do a welfare check. Some more rural agencies are sometimes less prepared to do this, however, Allie said, because the process involves permission from the cellphone carrier and a warrant.

“Active rescue can be very time-consuming and really, really stressful on our end because we certainly want to get help to someone quickly,” Allie said.

“One of the challenges we have is that, if you’re in Maine and you call from an 801 number, it’s going to come here (to Utah.) If somebody is in dire straits in another city or state, we then have to have multijurisdictional interventions … if we have limited information,” she added.

The University Neuropsychiatric Institute will also send out a Mobile Crisis Outreach Team (usually a licensed mental health professional and someone from the peer support team) to any resident of Salt Lake County — often at the behest of a caller or of police who have been called to do a welfare check.

While most counties in Utah lack the same type of resource, Ogden recently started a similar program and Utah County has a pilot program, Allie said. The outreach team can be especially helpful for those who want help but feel wary about getting law enforcement involved, she added.

“I think one of the most important things we want people to know is that it’s not against the law to have suicidal ideation,” Allie said. “If you call here and you say you’re thinking about harming yourself, that’s not an automatic call to the police. That’s the last thing we want to do. We want to get people help.”

What if I’m worried about someone else?

A lot of the calls the hotline receives are from family and friends worried about loved ones, Allie said.

“If it’s a third-party caller reaching out about a kid, we’re always really curious to know if they have (firearms) so we can make sure we can let them know where to get locks if they don’t have them,” Allie said.

Hotline workers are happy to help connect people with resources and often answer questions about ways to communicate with those who may be experiencing suicidal ideation, she explained.

“If somebody is voicing suicidal ideation, talking to them about suicidal ideation is not going to increase the risk of them completing or not completing (suicide),” Allie said.

The most common advice workers give is to simply reach out to those who may be experiencing ideation, she explained.

Often the hotline will receive calls from young people who are worried about someone with whom they don’t have a “real-life” relationship, Allie said. They’ll see a friend or acquaintance post something disturbing on Snapchat or Instagram, and hotline workers will encourage the caller to reach out to the person and share the lifeline number.

“We want people who know of people in crisis to not just pass off the phone number but reach out to those people and help them make the call,” she said.

What if I don’t want to make a phone call?

If you can’t or don’t want to make a physical phone call, you can text the Crisis Text Line at 741-741. The text line offers confidential and professional support 24/7 via text message.

The Safe UT app is also a good alternative for Utahns and allows users to start a text chat with licensed mental health professionals. It also gives students the opportunity to send anonymous tips to specific schools and has since been used to warn officials of everything from possible school shootings to students with suicidal ideation.

KSL.com received a response from a licensed mental health professional on the Safe UT app 2 minutes after sending its initial message.

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