Politics & Government

'We tend to get more calls ... but nothing like this,' suicide hotline says

Suicides are rising across the U.S.

Suicide is on the rise across the United States. It is more than a mental health condition — states and communities can adopt comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide.
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Suicide is on the rise across the United States. It is more than a mental health condition — states and communities can adopt comprehensive strategies to prevent suicide.

Calls to North Carolina's main suicide hotline nearly doubled following the deaths of celebrities Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain.

North Carolina's Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which awaits funding to keep operations open, averages about 255 calls a day. The Greenville-based call center received 333 calls on Wednesday after Spade's death and 467 calls on Friday after Bourdain's death, according to Mary Smith, executive director of Real Crisis Intervention, which fields calls to the lifeline.

“We tend to get more calls (after celebrity deaths), but nothing like this. This was highly unusual," Smith said in an interview Monday.

She reflected on the flood of calls the center received on Friday. “I had staff working double and triple shifts, staff coming in early because they heard how busy we were," she said.

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The NC lifeline is part of a national program. People in NC who call a national lifeline number — 1-800-273-8255 or 1-800-SUICIDE — are referred to the Greenville center.

Last week's rise in calls to the NC number reflected a national trend. Calls to the national lifeline were 25 percent higher last Thursday and Friday compared to the preceding week, a lifeline spokesperson told USA Today. Experts say media coverage of celebrity deaths can lead to an increase in suicide rates.

The deaths of Spade and Bourdain occurred the same week the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released new data on suicide deaths.

Suicides are on the rise in every state but Nevada and it's now the 10th-leading cause of death in the United States, the CDC reported. North Carolina's suicide rate increased 12.7 percent from 1999 to 2016, about half the national average.

How it works

On average, one person dies by suicide every six hours in North Carolina.

About 90 percent of the NC-based calls to the national Suicide Prevention Lifeline are fielded by the Greenville-based call center, Smith said, noting that's one of the highest rates in the nation. When someone calls, the trained workers do a "risk assessment."

"Everybody that works here has a human services degree, whether it's in social work or psychology," Smith said. "We try to hear what they're are saying. What is the barrier (to happiness) and how can we get over that barrier?"

Those who are actively considering suicide are encouraged to go to the hospital, she said.

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Funding forthcoming?

The NC lifeline, which needs about $350,000 to operate, is funded by a federal grant. But the federal government last year changed the way states are allowed to use mental health grants, leaving the future of the program in jeopardy.

The state budget doesn't include funding, which has left mental health advocates concerned for the hotline's future. On Friday, state Rep. Nelson Dollar said he and other Republican budget writers have identified funding for the program and plan to include it in a "technical corrections bill" by the end of the month.

There are several different ways the money can be allocated to the hotline, he said, declining to get into specifics.

"The main thing is: it will absolutely be funded," Dollar insisted.

Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht