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Mental health crisis hotlines overwhelmed with first-time callers

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Posted at 9:50 AM, Dec 30, 2021
and last updated 2021-12-30 12:50:04-05

PHOENIX, Ariz. — Therapists and mental health care providers are seeing more first-time patients than ever before because of the pandemic.

Mental health crisis hotline workers are helping those in their darkest moments. It’s no easy job, but it’s one Nicole H. knew she wanted.

“I found a big passion with providing care to people who didn't know where to turn,” said Nicole, who started her job as a crisis line operator just as the pandemic swept the country.

“That was…really scary,” she said, of beginning her job in such an uncertain time. “They were calling for answers, and how am I going to tell you where to find toilet paper when I don't know where to find toilet paper? So, you know, we don't necessarily have those answers, but we can be there to provide that emotional support."

Nicole works at the Solari Crisis and Human Services center in Phoenix. She and her team get 25,000 calls every month.

During the pandemic, more first-time callers have asked for help than ever before.

“Anxiety and depression have increased pretty dramatically, and we have found out that most of our callers are unfortunately on the more acute side of things, needing more immediate kinds of supports," she said.

This is happening across the country. Before the pandemic, a survey done by the Kaiser Family Foundation found 1 in 10 adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression.

Now, nearly two years into this crisis, about 4 in 10 U.S. adults report symptoms of anxiety and depression.

A new report released by the Government Accountability Office found six key groups of people are at a higher risk for mental health trauma because of the pandemic.

The list includes minority groups, like Native Americans and African Americans who were hit harder by the virus, young children and young adults who have had school and social time disrupted, and health care workers.

In addition, the report found those facing financial stressors, those with pre-existing mental health conditions also faced a higher risk of developing anxiety and depression in the face of the pandemic.

Nicole has seen these statistics through her calls. One call from a young girl who was struggling with school sticks with Nicole to this day. The call came from an 8-year-old girl living on a Native American reservation.

“She had a plan and means an intent to complete suicide. She was 8. She'd never called us before. I would be surprised if she ever dialed any phone number all by herself before, but she had a broken mirror. And her plan was to cut her wrists and die that way," Nicole recalled.

But in time, Nicole made a breakthrough.

“We were able to build that trust to get mom on the line, which was our saving grace. That was definitely one of the youngest, more acute callers," she explained.

Every call like that one makes her push even harder to get those she connects with resources and safety plans to help long past they hang up the call.

And on each call, this first responder consistently reminds her callers of one thing: “Although these feelings are big and heavy and feel completely out of control, this isn't this isn't what forever is going to look like.”

She just hopes this time of uncertainty will encourage those struggling to reach for a lifeline waiting on the line.

“Hope is there, and help is real. And that's really important,” said Nicole.

If you’re struggling with your mental health, click HERE for resources.

If you'd like to call the hotline, it is staffed 24/7 365 days per year. The phone number is: 1-800-273-CARE (2273).

If you are in Arizona, you can call either Central Arizona at 1-800-631-1314 or Northern Arizona at 1-877-756-4090.