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Suicide hotline calls up after Robin Williams' death.

National Suicide Prevention Day fell on Sept. 10 this year, surrounded by National Suicide Prevention Week Sept. 8-14. The conversation, as I'm sure everyone noticed, was focused on the suicide of actor Robin Williams. As we move out a few weeks, my patients--especially those who have contemplated ending their own lives--continue to talk about this tragic loss.

The fear is that the suicide of a celebrity will lead to an increase in the suicide rate in the general public --copycat suicides, if you will. In the month after Marilyn Monroe died of an overdose in 1962, the suicide rate rose by more than 10%.

On the other hand, the death of a celebrity may lead to a decrease in the suicide rate, as happened after Kurt Cobain's death from a self-inflicted gunshot wound in 1994. In the period after Cobain's death, an effort was made to publicize resources for those who need help. The suicide rate dropped, while calls to hotlines rose.

After Robin Williams' death, my own social media feeds were full of ads for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL), a hotline with the number 1-800-273-TALK. There are other hotlines, but this was the one I saw most. I wanted to learn about suicide hotlines, so I did a few things: I asked readers of our Shrink Rap blog_to tell me about their experiences, and I called the hotline myself to see if I could learn about the structure of the organization, what resources they had to offer a distraught caller, and whether there had been a change in the number of calls they'd received in the time following Mr. Williams' death.

I called from my cell phone, which is registered in Maryland, while sitting in my home in Baltimore City. The call was routed to the Grassroots Crisis Intervention Center in Columbia, Md. Google Maps tells me the center is 25 miles from my house, and it would take me 32 minutes to drive there. In addition to being part of a network of 160 hotline centers across the country, Grassroots has a walk-in crisis center and a mobile treatment center, and is adjacent to a homeless shelter.

"Most of the people who call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are suicidal," said Nicole DeChirico, director of crisis intervention services for Grassroots.

"There is a gradation in suicidal thinking, but about 90% of our callers are considering it."

"We first form rapport, and then we try to quickly assess if an attempt has already been made, and if they are in any danger. We use the assessment of suicidality that is put out by the NSPL. It's a structured template that is used as a guideline."

Ms. DeChirico noted that the people who man the hotlines have bachelor's or master's degrees--often in psychology, social work, counseling, or education. If feasible, a Safety Planning Intervention is implemented, based on the work of Barbara Stanley, Ph.D., at Columbia University in New York.

"We talk to people about what they need to do to feel safe. If they allow it, we set up a follow-up call. Of the total number of people who have attempted suicide once in the past and lived, 90%-96% never go on to attempt suicide again," Ms. DeChirico noted. "Suicide is a time-limited acute crisis."

The Grassroots team can see patients on site while they wait for appointments with an outpatient clinician, and can send a mobile crisis team to those who need it if they are in the county served by the organization. I wondered if all 160 agencies that received calls from the NSPL could also provide crisis services.

Marcia Epstein, LMSW, was director of the Headquarters Counseling Center in Lawrence, Kan., from 1979 to 2013. The center became part of the first national suicide prevention hotline network, the National Hopeline Network, 1-800-SUICIDE, in 2001, and then became part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK (8255), when that network began in January 2005.

"The types of programs and agencies which are part of NSPL vary greatly. The accreditation that allows them to be part of the NSPL network also varies. Some centers are staffed totally by licensed mental health therapists, while others might include trained volunteers and paid counselors who have no professional degree or licensure.

"Service may be delivered by phone, as well as in person, by text, and by live chat. In person might be on site or through mobile crisis outreach. Some centers are part of other organizations, while others are free-standing, and some serve entire states, while others serve geographically smaller regions," Ms. Epstein explained in a series of e-mails.

She noted that some centers assess and refer, while others, like Grassroots, are able to provide more counseling.

"So if it sounds like I'm saying there is little consistency between centers, yes, that is my experience. But the centers all bring strong commitment to preventing suicide."

Ms. Epstein continued to discuss the power of the work done with hotline callers.

"The really helpful counseling comes from the heart, from connecting to people with caring and respect and patience, and using our skills in helping them stay safer through the crisis and then, when needed, to stay safer in the long run. It takes a lot of bravery from the people letting us help. And it takes a lot of creativity and flexibility in coming up together with realistic plans to support safety."

I was curious about the patient response, and I found that was mixed. It was also notable that different patients found different forms of communication to be helpful.

A woman who identified herself only as "Virginia Woolf" wrote, "I have contacted the Samaritans on line because I could write to them via e-mail. I don't like phones and I also know too many of the counselors on the local crisis line. Each time I was definitely close to suicide. I was in despair, and I had the means at hand. I think what stopped me was knowing they would reply. They always did, within a few hours, but waiting for their reply kept me safe."

Not every response was as positive.

One writer noted, "It was not a productive, supportive, or empathetic person. I felt like she was arrogant, judgmental, and didn't really care about why I was calling."

The same writer, however, was able to find solace elsewhere. "I have texted CrisisChat and it was an excellent chat and I did feel better."

Finally, Ms. DeChirico sent me information about the call volume from our local NPSL center in Columbia. From July 1, 2013, to July 31, 2014, the Lifeline received an average of 134 calls per month. December had the highest number of calls, with 163, while August had the lowest with 118. September, February, and April all had 120 calls or fewer.

Robin Williams died on Aug. 11, 2014, and the center received 200 calls in August --a 49% increase over the average volume. Hopefully, we'll end up seeing a decline in suicide in the months after Mr. Williams' tragic death.

Caption: DR. MILLER

Caption: The tragic loss of Robin Williams continues to be a topic of conversation.


Dr. Miller is a coauthor of "Shrink Rap: Three Psychiatrists Explain Their Work" (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2011). Scan the QR code to read more Shrink Rap News columns at


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Title Annotation:SHRINK RAP NEWS
Author:Miller, Dinah
Publication:Clinical Psychiatry News
Date:Oct 1, 2014
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