SC left with 1 suicide prevention call center as demand is predicted to spike

Published: Jul. 12, 2021 at 10:13 PM EDT
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COLUMBIA, S.C. (WIS) - In less than five weeks, in-person learning starts for some South Carolina students, which might create a semblance of normal for some -- even if they aren’t feeling like their old selves.

In May of 2020, 2,552 South Carolinians called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL). A year later, 3,315 people called for help in May.

But as demand increases, there are fewer South Carolina-based suicide prevention call centers.

There is now just one, based in Greenville, compared to the four that there were around the state in the early 2000s.

“When you go from four call centers to one, you really worry about the one. And we have a great one,” said Dennis Gillan with the SCDMH Office of Suicide Prevention.

Gillian said about 30% of South Carolina callers into the NSPL will speak to someone from out of state rather than a fellow South Carolinian. He said the benefit of speaking to someone in state when you’re in pain goes far beyond a familiarity with the region.

“They know who to dispatch, they know where to send them, they know what resources are out here in South Carolina for South Carolinians and it’s important that we match that up,” Gillan said.

On top of the spike in demand, callers from the Palmetto State are getting younger, according to the SC Dept. of Mental Health.

“In 2019, the youngest caller to the lifeline was 11 years old. Last year, the youngest caller was 9 years old,” said SCDMH Program Director Jennifer Butler. “And this year, the youngest caller to the lifeline has been 7 years old in South Carolina. So, imagine a 7-year-old being in that level of distress.”

People who work at the state’s only call center say many of the younger people calling are anxious and depressed.

“Maybe there is some kind of struggle going on in their individual family -- their escape is going to school, as much as they say they don’t like, their outlet is with their peers,” said Kathy Eckhart with Mental Health of America Greenville.

And it’s not just calls from people in crisis, there’s been a major increase in pre-teens calling into EMS because of self harm.

From October 2020 to March 2021, there was a 60 percent increase in EMS self-harm calls compared to the same time the year before.

And there was a 160% increase among 35 to 44 year olds.

“Those are individuals who have gotten to a place of life when they felt settled and they had some control of their situation,” Eckhart said of callers in their 30s and 40s. “Maybe they lost their job to COVID and they don’t see where that is going to come back.”

Gillan says if the state can hire more counselors for the Greenville location, and maybe even set up more call centers, it would help SCDMH improve on the already strong foundation he says they’ve built.

“No more stop gaps,” he said. “If we can get a dedicated funding source year in year out -- that would make all our lives easier.”

Mental health experts in South Carolina are especially hopeful for more assistance ahead of the nationwide rollout of the 988 initiative next July.

This nationwide effort, similar to 911, would make it so whenever someone dials 988 they will be connected to a mental health professional 24/7.

Gillan expects the ease of a shorter number to lead to a spike in demand.

“The key to this is sustainability,” he said. “If we can keep the mental health environment we have in South Carolina vibrant, that’s the key.”

If you want to volunteer with the Mental Health America Greenville, click or tap here.

If you or someone you know is looking for help, you can call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at (800)-273-Talk, call a SC mobile crisis center at (833)-364-2274, or you can text the Crisis Text Line by texting HOPE4SC to 741-741.

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