Calls from people contemplating suicide or friends and family of someone thinking about suicide were up 126 percent in 2012, according to the Memphis Crisis Center, the volunteer-driven hotline aimed at suicide prevention.
Crisis Center executive director Mike LaBonte said he's not sure of all the reasons why the center had so many more calls last year, but he blames the economy for a large number of those calls.
"More of our callers who have suicidal issues are those being affected by economic issues, things like access to adequate health care, home foreclosure, unemployment, and financial strain," LaBonte said.
But LaBonte says there's not a one-size-fits-all answer to the dramatic rise in suicide calls last year.
"The face of suicide is the traumatized veteran coming home to a depressed economy. It's the young lesbian who is being bullied at school and rejected at home. It's the middle-aged professional who has been downsized out of a job, and it's the victim of domestic violence who feels like she's trapped in circumstances she can't escape," LaBonte said.
In 2012, the center took 1,264 suicide-related calls, as opposed to 559 suicide calls in 2011.
While those numbers may sound depressing at first, LaBonte is quick to point out that many of these people did not go through with suicide because of their interaction with the Crisis Center volunteers. Although all calls are anonymous, the caller may choose to allow the center to do follow-up calls checking on their welfare. Volunteer Sammie Butts handles all of those follow-ups.
"It seems like, after 24 hours or a few days has passed, all of those callers are in a better place in their lives. Everyone I've called has been appreciative of the follow-up," Butts said.
The center's overall call volume was up significantly as well — 17,629 calls in 2012 compared with 14,103 in 2011.
"Part of the reason for the increase in call volume is that our profile has risen in the community. We have done a lot more marketing and some capacity building," LaBonte said.
Besides suicide, the center also takes calls routed from other hotlines, such as Senior-B-Safe, the Ryan White HIV Care Hotline, and Call-4-Kids (providing support for youth with behavioral problems). People also call the center for issues related to domestic violence, rape or sexual assault, and mental health issues.
All of those calls are handled by volunteers trained in suicide prevention and crisis de-escalation. Volunteers help those contemplating suicide by coming up with a safety plan that includes referrals to local resources, and when necessary, dispatching the Memphis Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. LaBonte said he needs more help to accommodate the rise in call volume.
"There's a real fear at first about taking calls, but there's also a real satisfaction in taking calls," LaBonte said. "One of my new volunteers, about a month ago, was on the phone with someone, and I heard her ask, 'Can you put the gun down for me?' Later, I asked how the call went. She said she was on that call for an hour and a half, and she eventually got him to put the gun down and was able to dispatch help. She said, 'I saved a life today.'"
Butts, a retired project manager from FedEx who has volunteered at the Crisis Center for six months, agrees.
"At first, I imagined ambulances flying and helicopters and police cars on every call, so I was a little hesitant," Butts said. "But I went through training and now I can't imagine not ever being here and doing what I do."
Besides volunteers, the nonprofit center is also seeking donations.
"Our call volume is increasing, and we've seen a dramatic leap in our suicide calls. But we can't do it without volunteers, and we can't do it without funding," LaBonte said.
To donate or sign up as a volunteer, go to memphiscrisiscenter.org or call 649-8572.