Health Department working to establish suicide prevention call center

Arkansans soon will have an accredited suicide lifeline center for the first time since last August, thanks to a new law requiring the state Department of Health to establish and maintain a hotline. Arkansas has been one of only two states in the U.S. without a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline call center after the state’s only center lost its accreditation last year.

Act 811 in the most recent General Assembly mandated that the health department establish and maintain – to the extent that funding is available – an in-state call center to answer 70 percent of national toll-free suicide hotline calls from Arkansans, according to Meg Mirivel, spokeswoman for the ADH.

Because no funds were allocated for the hotline, the department is planning to use existing grants, including the Garrett Lee Smith grant, to fund the center short term. Once the center is operational, the ADH will seek federal funding to continue the lifeline. The ADH doesn’t have an exact timeframe, but hopes are to have the hotline operational by this summer, Mirivel said.

The NSPL stopped directing calls made to 1-800-273-TALK to the Arkansas Crisis Center, located in Northwest Arkansas, last August when the center’s accreditation was denied for not maintaining standards required by the national organization.

The center only answered 9 percent of the 8,808 calls in 2015, according to the NSPL (not including veteran or Spanish speaking Arkansas callers). This means 8,015 calls from Arkansans were routed out of state when callers made the decision to dial for help. This is the same year that the CDC reported Arkansas’s suicide rate jumped from 16th in the nation to 10th.

Tanya Phillips, Arkansas Suicide Prevention Network coordinator and chairwoman of the Central Arkansas Veterans Mental Health Council, believes the two are linked.

“I am extremely frustrated that we have been fighting for over a year to get an accredited, fully functioning call center to answer the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. In 2015, the year we learned there was an issue with the calls being answered, we lost 571 Arkansans to suicide; 108 [were] veterans. That is unacceptable,” Phillips said.

When Arkansans call the 1-800 lifeline, they are routed to a center in another state. While surrounding states may have some information about resources in Arkansas, some calls are routed to cities like Boston, which can’t easily and quickly recommend local resources.

Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) was the sponsor of the bill that became Act 811. He said the Arkansas Veterans Coalition brought the matter to his attention. The amount of options suicidal veterans must go through to reach a trained operator isn’t ideal, Johnson said.

“If I’m thinking about hurting myself, I don’t need to be pushing buttons. I need to be talking to somebody,” Johnson told the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network.

Having out-of-state operators answering while not knowing where towns like Eudora or Dover are isn’t beneficial for Arkansans, Johnson said.

“We need an Arkansas call center that knows where Arkansans can get help,” Johnson said.

“You don’t want to be in the top 10 in this category,” Johnson said. “We have way too many suicides per capita. One is way too many.”

The Arkansas chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention also has been highly involved and looking to establish an in-state call center.

“They may be able to talk me through that critical suicidal window, but they can’t refer me to local services or local providers,” Tyler West, a volunteer and board member with the Arkansas chapter of American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said of out-of-state operators.

West believes the Arkansas Crisis Center’s problems may have stemmed from funding issues, but the Arkansas Department of Health reported that state funding was available to the center.

Federal funding from the Garrett Lee Smith Grant has always been available to accredited crisis centers in Arkansas, and the ACC was aware of this potential funding, says Joy Gray, a former program manager for suicide prevention program with the Department of Health.

She also said that there were no attempts by the center to become reaccredited and therefore it was ineligible for grant funding.

The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration informed the ADH that if the state was unable to have a call center that could answer 70 percent of NSPL calls, the state would no longer be eligible for at least $1.2 million in grants to assist in suicide prevention. Part of this includes the $750,000 Garrett Lee Smith Grant the state currently receives.

This isn’t the only grant Arkansas would miss out on. All federal grants regarding suicide prevention going forward will require a call center in the state answering 70 percent of NSPL calls, Gray said.

This money supports suicide prevention training for students and teachers in schools around state. It also goes toward first responders on how to deal with a suicide situation, West said.

“That’s going to drastically cut back on services,” West said regarding the potential loss of funding. “That money is vital to Arkansas’s young people.”

The Arkansas Crisis Center still exists and has at least one phone line available for desperate Arkansans, but because it is no longer accredited by NSPL, callers aren’t routed there when dialing the NSPL number (1-800-273-TALK). The crisis center’s own number, 888-CRISIS2 (888-274-7472), went unanswered when a reporter dialed it eight times in one day between 8 a.m. and 11 p.m., when its website indicates calls are accepted.

With no registered call center, Arkansas has been one of two states without an NSPL crisis line. Wyoming doesn’t have a line and has been in the top four highest suicide rates during the 2011-15 period, most recent data available.

Arkansas’s suicide rate in 2015 was 19.4 per 100,000 population, well above the national rate of 13.8 per 100,000 population. Suicide is the No. 1 injury related death in Arkansas, topping car wrecks and homicides, according to a report released by the ADH.

Bobby Richardson of the Suicide and Crisis Center of North Texas, another NSPL center, answered after three rings. He said he notices a lot of calls from a 479 area code, the area code for Northwest Arkansas.

Suicide rates in Arkansas have risen 23 percent since 2011 with an 11.5 percent increase from 2014-15.

In 2012, the Arkansas Department of Health Injury and Violence Prevention released a five-year plan acknowledging the increase in suicides in Arkansas and outlining a plan to reduce suicide rates. The plan included steps to increase effective clinical care for mental health patients, increase family and community support, increase support of medical and mental health care relationships and support of cultural and religious beliefs that discourage suicide.

The Arkansas chapter of the American Foundation For Suicide Prevention gives an outline of awareness efforts made in 2016 including distribution of brochures, various presentations, television spots encouraging those in need to seek help, and walks to raise awareness.

“This is what we’re supposed to do — set parties aside, set hairdos aside, set race and gender [aside]. It doesn’t matter, set all those aside and let’s help Arkansas,” Johnson said.

Operators from other states are available to speak 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.

This reporting is courtesy of the Arkansas Nonprofit News Network, an independent, nonpartisan news project dedicated to producing journalism that matters to Arkansans.

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