Calls to U.S. Mental Health Crisis Hotline Up 891% During Pandemic

Demand for counseling and suicide support services surge as the coronavirus wreaks havoc on our mental health

By Elizabeth Yuko, Ph.D.
April 14, 2020

In the midst of the coronavirus outbreak, many people are focused on identifying the symptoms of COVID-19 — and rightfully so. But in the process of doing so, we may overlook some of the crucial signs of depression, anxiety and other mental health issues. Whether or not we realize it, the isolation, financial insecurity and uncertainty of pandemic can take a toll on our mental health. And now, a federal mental health crisis hotline has reported that calls during the coronavirus outbreak have been up 891 percent, demonstrating the unprecedented need for support services.

Major increase in calls to mental health crisis and suicide hotlines

The Disaster Distress Helpline, operated by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), provides counseling over the phone for people experiencing emotional distress during various types of emergency and disaster situations. In early April, SAMHSA released figures for their calls in March 2020, noting that there was an 891 percent increase compared to March 2019. In addition, the organization noted that there was a 338 percent increase in calls in March 2020 compared to February 2020, when the pandemic began.

Meanwhile, local suicide hotlines across the country have also experienced a significant spike in calls over the past two months, with some reporting a 300 percent increase in requests for their services. This surge in demand is not only indicative of the widespread impact of the outbreak, but also presents a challenge for counselors who may also be experiencing their own distress. “We’ve never had some type of societal change or epidemic that has both impacted within our organization and everyone outside of it,” Carolyn Levitan, director of Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services in California told NBC News. “Suddenly our counselors are experiencing some of the same crises that callers and chat visitors are.”

Why the coronavirus pandemic is having a major impact on our mental health

Even if you don’t have a diagnosed anxiety disorder, clinical depression, obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD), agoraphobia or other mental illness, you’re likely feeling the effects of the coronavirus outbreak. Part of the reason for the unprecedented number of calls to mental health and suicide hotlines is that a modern pandemic of this magnitude is also unprecedented. There is so much that we don’t know yet, meaning that whether or not we want to admit it, many aspects of our lives are out of our control. This loss of control and/or agency can be a major trigger for anxiety.

“This feels different, and it is,” Dr. Roxane Cohen Silver, a professor of psychological science, medicine and public health at the University of California, Irvine told the Center for Public Integrity. “This is an invisible threat: We don’t know who is infected, and anyone could infect us. This is an ambiguous threat: We don’t know how bad it will get … we don’t know how long it will last. And this is a global threat: No community is safe.”

On top of the uncertainty is the fact that most of us are grieving something right now. Even if you aren’t mourning the loss of someone you know to COVID-19, you’re likely grieving other parts of your life, like the loss of normalcy, security or in-person connections with friends and family. “So many times, people think of grief as only death,” David Kessler, one of the world’s foremost experts in grief and loss told Rolling Stone. “But there are many, many different types of losses that give us grief, whether it’s the loss of a marriage, a job loss, [or] the loss of a home when it burns down. And I don’t think people thought about the loss of our normal world or normal life. I don’t think people have really used that terminology that ‘Oh, I can have grief if the world I knew suddenly disappeared.’” 

If you’re someone who lives with a diagnosed mental illness, this time of self-isolation can be particularly hard. “Quarantine is especially difficult for people who have underlying psychological problems. It feels like being a prisoner who is punished by being forced to live in solitary confinement,” Dr. Carole Lieberman, a board certified psychiatrist, with a masters in public health told Lifehacker. “And, besides having underlying problems, such as anxiety, depression, obsessive compulsive disorder, and so on, everyone is being whipped up into mass hysteria and some are having panic attacks based on fear of getting coronavirus.”

The bottom line is, diagnosis or not, many people are experiencing high levels of anxiety and distress right now. If you’re part of that group, know that you’re not alone, and help is available.

Mental health help and resources for the coronavirus outbreak

Now, more than ever, it’s important to recognize when you need mental health support, then seek it out. There are a number of mental health and suicide crisis hotlines available, both on the national and local levels. Here are a few of the national organizations offering assistance:

SAMHSA Disaster Distress Helpline: Staff is available 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You can call 1-800-985-5990 or text TalkWithUs to 66746 to be connected to a trained counselor. Visit their website for more information and resources.

National Suicide Prevention Hotline: Call 1-800-273-TALK (8255) or contact the free 24-hour online chat to connect with counselors and receive mental health support.

National Domestic Violence Hotline: If you’re experiencing domestic violence, call 1-800-799-7233  or visit the organization’s website for assistance and resources.

Crisis Text Line: Text MHA to 741741 and you’ll be connected to a trained Crisis Counselor. Crisis Text Line provides free, text-based support 24/7.

Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN): Call 1-800-656-4673 or visit the RAINN website for 24-hour chat support.

Caregiver Help Desk: Contact the Caregiver Action Network’s Care Support Team by dialing 855-227-3640. Staffed by caregiving experts, the organization helps you find the information you need to navigate your complex caregiving challenges. Caregiving experts are available 8:00 AM – 7:00 PM ET.

The Trevor Project: Call 1-866-488-7386 or text START to 678678. A national 24-hour, toll free confidential suicide hotline for LGBTQ youth.

About the writer:

Dr. Elizabeth Yuko is a bioethicist and writer as well as an adjunct professor of ethics at Fordham University. She has written for print and online publications, including The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe AtlanticRolling StoneCNNFodor’sLifehackerReader’s Digest and Playboy.

Outlier Disclaimer

This site is for educational purposes and not a substitute for professional medical care by a doctor or otherwise qualified medical professional. The information provided by Outlier Magazine is on the understanding that it does not constitute medical or other professional advice or services.

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