INDIANAPOLIS, Ind.– Every year, more than 2 million people call the Suicide Prevention Lifeline looking for a person to talk to.
Every year, a good portion of those callers are people from Indiana.
In October 2018, Tracy Carter made the call.
“A good friend of mine called me and she was having a really hard time and she told me she had been thinking about killing herself,” Carter said. “Immediately, I went into panic mode. I didn’t know what to do.”
Carter dialed the 1-800 number with her friend on the line.
“I was expecting someone to pick up the phone right away but that didn’t happen,” she explained.
Carter told CBS4 that she and her friend were put on hold instead.
“I didn’t know what to do,” she said. “We were on at least a 20-minute hold!”
Carter said the entire time, she and her friend were forced to listen to loud music. She said it was disturbing and not something she wanted to hear as they impatiently waited for an operator.
“I was worried,” she recalled. “I’m not a professional.”
Carter called the CBS4 Problem Solvers wanting to know why she was placed on hold for so long.
The hotline is similar to a 911 call center. While there are more than 150 local and state-funded crisis centers located across the country, individuals are typically rerouted to a crisis center that matches their area code. There are five crisis centers in Indiana.
“When people call the Lifeline, they hear a greeting, and then music as they are routed to their local crisis center,” Frances Gonzalez, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, explained. “If a local center is unable to answer the call, the call is then rerouted to one of our national backup centers.”
Gonzales said 85 percent of their calls are answered within 30 seconds after the greeting. Most are answered within 75 seconds or less. Yet, some of those calls are placed in a queue and could take longer.
“Lifeline call volume has increased significantly over the last two years as awareness of this resource has grown,” Gonzalez said. “We recognize that wait times may increase when calls are routed to states with limited crisis center resources, or during times of high call volume, and that this can be difficult for people in crisis.”
Reporter Angela Brauer contacted all five crisis centers in the state asking why someone would be placed on hold. Each of them admitted to facing several challenges.
Families First in Indianapolis says it receives more than 1,700 suicidal calls a month. It has 20 active volunteers that work in four-hour shifts fielding those calls.
“Our need for volunteers is tremendous and it never goes away,” executive director David Siler said. “We could easily use 40 more volunteers today.”
Siler said when the call volume increases significantly, they have at least one paid staff member that ends up working 80-90 hours a week.
“We could easily use additional staff but the cost is prohibitive,” Siler explained. “It costs us about a half million dollars a year just to operate the line.”
Siler said when celebrities have taken their own lives, the call volume has been known to increase 41 percent or more.
“Take Robin Williams, for instance,” Siler said. “Somebody who was a comedian, had everything in the world, all the wealth, everything you could imagine and you’re somebody who isn’t really stable and you’re struggling with anxiety or depression. When you see that, you can tend to think ‘well, if he couldn’t make it, I can’t.’”
A Better Way Services in Muncie has answered about 300 calls in the last six months. It has 20 full-time employees and several volunteers that man the phone lines.
“We could use more operators. We could stretch our capacity to take more calls if we had more funding available,” Adam Reichle said. “The gap in the need versus the resources available is pretty big.”
Reichle said the additional funding would help prevent callers from needing to wait in a queue. He added that additional money would likely need to come from federal or state agencies.
“It’s unfortunate,” he said. “It’s sad.”
Data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show suicide is Indiana’s 10th leading cause of death. The suicide rate skyrocketed nearly 32 percent between 1999 and 2016. The American Foundation for Suicide Prevention took the numbers a bit further and said more people died in that time period than homicides.
CBS4 asked the state’s Family and Social Services Administration what it is doing to help the cause. A spokesperson said the department is “exploring ways to partner with and help strengthen these organizations and their suicide prevention resources” and looking for additional non-profits to help with staffing the lifeline.
Indiana’s FSSA added it is about to launch a new, interactive suicide prevention website.
Siler believes Carter waited in the queue for a while because either the call volume was so high or there was a technical glitch.
“It’s very unusual,” he said.
Siler suggested if anyone else has the same experience, to hang up and call back right away.
“The system is set up so that if for instance, we have three levels, three people back up one another. At any time, if those three people happen to be on the phone, it will kick to another lifeline.”
Tracy Carter’s friend ended up OK but both of the women are now hoping Indiana makes some changes and quickly.
“Seconds count,” Carter said. “Some people might not have a person like me to talk to or anyone to call.”