Politics & Government

Busy crisis centers suffer from economic stress, too

Hotlines also stressed in this economy
Hotlines also stressed in this economy Chuck Kennedy / MCT

WASHINGTON — As more recession-racked people turn to crisis hot lines for help, more hot line operators say they're running short of staff and money.

John Bateson, the executive director of the Contra Costa Crisis Center in California, said that his staff was so busy that "When another call comes in, the counselors look around to see who is in the best position to lay down their call and take the new one."

"Down time doesn't exist anymore," he said. "You're rushed into the next call."

Moreover, calls tend to be longer, because profound problems are more common, especially in hard-hit communities. At the Crisis Call Center in Reno, Nev., for example, suicide-related calls rose 43 percent last year, according to Debbie Gant-Reed, the crisis line coordinator.

Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which fields more than 1,500 calls a day from people in crisis nationwide and refers them to local counselors, increased 27 percent from January 2008 to January 2009, hot line press aide Carrie Ainsworth said.

Local counselors, however, are in short supply. Jayne Crisp, the director of CRISIS-Line in Greenville, S.C., badly needs more volunteers, she said, but more and more prospects are looking for paid work. It's the same story at Dallas' Suicide & Crisis Center.

It's not just local crisis centers that are hurting. The agencies and programs to which counselors used to refer desperate clients are in trouble, too.

"The bigger problem is that our community doesn't have the capacity to handle the need," said Robert Arnold, the crisis line director for United Way of Northeast Florida.

The same applies in Greenville, where Crisp's hot line counselors in the past often sent clients to Foothills Family Resources for help paying rent, mortgage and utility bills. The center helped four times as many people in the last year as in the previous one, but recent state and federal cuts are forcing it to turn away most applicants.

"We can't help everybody anymore," said Michele Merrigan, the center's director. "Our food pantry is empty right now, too, by the way."

People in Idaho are even worse off. Its first suicide-prevention call center lost its state grant before it opened, said John Draper, the project director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Other centers face grant cuts as state budgets tighten, he said, and "if you cut the crisis line, you cut the safety net."

Bateson, the Contra Costa Crisis Center official, said he worried most about having more phones ringing than volunteers to answer them.

"If people try to reach us and we're not able to reach them, that's something that could push them over the edge," he said.


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