Crisis Hotlines Offer Glimpse Of Mental Health In The Pandemic : Shots - Health News People are calling crisis hotlines in greater numbers, complaining of more complex struggles. What these lines are seeing offers a window into the emotional struggles Americans face.

Flood Of Calls And Texts To Crisis Hotlines Reflects Americans' Rising Anxiety

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As Americans try to deal with the ongoing effects of the pandemic - isolation, anxiety, stress, to name a few - the crisis centers that help people are themselves in crisis. Not only are needs greater, the problems are more acute and complex. NPR's Yuki Noguchi reports those calls offer a window into the emotional struggles Americans are facing.

YUKI NOGUCHI, BYLINE: Normally, Laura Mayer helps suicidal callers find the nearest hospital emergency room. But in a pandemic, that's now a crisis counselor's advice of last resort.

LAURA MAYER: It's a difficult decision because we do know that by sending them into an overburdened health care system, they may or may not get the treatment that they need. The resources may or may not be there. And we're exposing them to the illness.

NOGUCHI: So instead, counselors are devoting much more time to each caller, offering ad hoc therapy, coaxing them to talk through their pain. But, of course, these days, that pain often has many sources - lost jobs, severed relationships and sick family. Mayer is director of PRS CrisisLink in Oakton, Va. It's one of many centers taking calls for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. She says call volumes are up, but that's not even the biggest challenge.

MAYER: That type of call and the seriousness of the call is very different this year than it was in previous years. There's environmental issues, internal issues, family issues, difficult things. It's never one thing.

NOGUCHI: As people grapple with fear, loneliness and grief at global scale, those stresses are showing up on crisis hotlines. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration saw a five-fold increase in its help line in March. Mental health problems, in other words, are multiplying. Volunteer counselors and good Samaritans are lining up to help, but Mayer says those offering this kind of support end up needing support themselves.

MAYER: This illness is starting to impact each of our crisis workers and counselors themselves personally. And so we're dealing with the crisis outside of our homes. And we're now dealing with the crisis inside of our homes. And so everyone is kind of a client right now, and that's been really challenging.

NOGUCHI: It's the same at other hotlines. Nancy Lublin is CEO and founder of The Crisis Text Line, which has seen volumes increase 40% since the pandemic.

NANCY LUBLIN: This echo of the physical virus, the mental health echo, we fear is going to last a very long time and that the intensity will remain.

NOGUCHI: Initially, traffic spiked over anxiety about the virus itself. That shifted to complaints of isolation. Now, texters talk of depression and grief.

LUBLIN: We have doubled the number of conversations that are about grief. The top two words that we see there are grandma and grandpa.

NOGUCHI: And it's no longer just young people. Adults complain of loneliness, sexual abuse and eating disorders.

LUBLIN: We're seeing it's the people over the age of 35 who are increasing at a higher percentage of our volume. For the first time, we're seeing people over the age of 60 texting us.

NOGUCHI: Lublin says texting is ideal for those stuck at home with no personal space.

LUBLIN: You don't have to find a quiet space where no one else can hear you.

NOGUCHI: And for some, that's the only form of escape.

LUBLIN: We've had a 74% increase in domestic violence conversations. We see words like trapped, hurt.

NOGUCHI: Many shelters have shut down. Some rely on their own hotlines instead. That's true for the Salvation Army in Philadelphia. Arielle Curry is director of its anti-human trafficking program. Many of her clients can't afford cellphones and have lost touch. Those that remain in contact are in dire straits, often suicidal. Curry says addressing those acute needs by phone is frustrating.

ARIELLE CURRY: How do you do that when you can't, one, comfort someone to lock them in their eyes and support them face to face and show your body language, that you're there and you're supporting them?

NOGUCHI: Sometimes it's hard, she admits, not to feel helpless and hopeless herself. Yuki Noguchi, NPR News.

KELLY: And a reminder that if you or someone you know is in crisis, please call a crisis hotline like the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Their number is 1-800-273-8255.

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