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Calls to suicide hotlines rise during COVID-19 pandemic

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A proposal from the Federal Communications Commission recommends changing the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number to 988. (WWMT/Matt Loughrin)

The COVID-19 crisis has had a profound impact on people’s mental health and in West Michigan, the number of calls to suicide hotlines are up.

Doctors have been tackling COVID-19’s physical risks and symptoms for months, and researchers are studying the invisible effects on mental health.

Records showed in the last 30 days Kalamazoo Public Safety officers responded to 64 calls for suicide or suicide attempts, which is an average of two calls per day.

A study released by Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services in June 2020 showed calls to suicide hotlines are up 47% nationwide during the COVID-19 pandemic with some crisis lines experiencing a 300% increase.

"Even though there are more calls for crisis's and suicide attempts and threats, it's still artificially depressed because people can't get out of their homes," said Robert Sheehan, president of the Community Mental Health Association of Michigan.

The Pine Rest study points to the deadly pandemic, the effects of isolation and economic stress as fueling the rise in calls to suicide hotlines.

Sheehan said racial justice is one variable that is impacting suicide rates.

"It's not just related to COVID but the strife. No matter where you stand on the racial justice issue is causing people stress," Sheehan said.

The Pine Rest study predicted a 25% increase in suicides in the U.S. over the next year, fueling what experts say could be a second wave of impact to mental health.

"We've only begun to see the physiological impact COVID is having," Jeff Chicoski said.

Chicoski, the co-founder of Teletherapy Group, a practice he launched in 2017, said he had been seeing more patients with increased levels of depression and anxiety.

"When is this going to get better? People are asking a lot of questions we don't have the answers to at this point," Chicoski said.

Individuals in suicidal crisis seeking help would have a number that's easy to remember and quick to dial to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline starting in 2022.

On July 16, 2020, the Federal Communications Commission voted to finalize 988 as new three digit number Americans can call and be directed to the 24/7 national suicide hotline.

Callers currently reach the National Suicide Hotline by phoning the 10-digit number: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK).

Locally, Gryphon Place offers a 24-hour HELP line at 269-381-HELP (4357) for anyone who may feel desperate, overwhelmed, emotional or hopeless.