Calls from suicidal people to 911 are rising, Portland police say. Coronavirus could be fueling anxiety

Financial hardship and social isolation are known triggers for suicidal thoughts and actions, leading many public health experts to fear a significant uptick in the months to come


Image: Portland’s Bureau of Emergency Communications

By Maxine Bernstein

Portland police are handling a noticeable spike in 911 calls involving suicide attempts or threats — a possible sign that the coronavirus outbreak and the resulting anxiety and hardships are taking a toll on residents, mental health experts say.

The number of suicide calls sent to police by emergency dispatchers rose 23% between March 12 and 22, compared to the prior 10 days before the city’s coronavirus state of emergency, Police Chief Jami Resch reported. That’s as the total number of 911 calls fell by 10% during the same period.

Multnomah County’s crisis line and the nonprofit crisis-line call center Lines for Life didn’t experience a corresponding increase in calls from people threatening suicide, their supervisors said.

Yet Dwight Holton, Lines for Life’s chief executive officer, said, “We all expect volume to increase, and we’re preparing for it.’'

Greg Borders, Lines for Life’s chief clinical officer, said the agency’s call takers are seeing more calls involving people’s fear, anxiety and depression over the new COVID-19, uncertainty regarding personal finances and the general upheaval in their routines.

Most of Lines for Life’s approximately 80 call takers are working remotely, still taking calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

When a caller reaches Lines for Life, “We tell people that they did a great job by reaching out,’' Borders said. “This is a time where it seems the message is to isolate, but I think the message is more important now than ever not to isolate.’'

Borders and other mental health experts urge people to find creative ways to reach out to friends and family or other support services.

Leticia Sainz, interim deputy director of Multnomah County’s behavioral health division that runs the county’s crisis line, said the start of spring is always a time of increased mental health challenges and generates a busy call load.

The county’s crisis line is taking more than 200 calls a day, about 75,000 calls a year.

“I would say our call volume is up slightly, but it’s such a typically busy time for us anyway,’' Sainz said. “I don’t know if we have enough data yet to say, ‘Oh, it’s because of the coronavirus.’''

The crisis line has about 30 staff, and callers are working at the county office in rotating shifts, their work stations further apart from one another. Workers with the county’s Project Respond are continuing to provide their mobile mental health crisis services on the city’s streets.

This is such a tough time for everyone. Everyone who is a human being on the planet. None of us are immune to this feeling of anxiety and stress,’' Sainz said. “I think we’re still really seeing the beginnings of the effects of this.’'

Chris Bouneff, executive director of the Oregon chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said amid the coronavirus scare “just attending to mental health seems like a luxury in some ways.’'

His agency and other mental health providers are rushing to make the in-person, peer-support groups they facilitate across the state continue via Zoom or other technology.

“So it’s taking a model of support and education to some 14,000 people around the state and putting it all online in the matter of days,’' he said.

”We’re going as old school as doing phone trees” to continue providing support to people, Bouneff said. Behavioral health isn’t as technologically advanced as other areas of care, he said.

“You can’t find tele-health in behavioral health,’' he said. “It’s a huge game of catchup for everybody in our world. The speed that we can adopt will be really critical to meeting people’s needs so you don’t see people needlessly suffering.’'

As for the police calls, Bouneff said it’s hard to explain the increase in suicidal threat or attempt calls: “Are people so scared they’re not reaching out for help? Are they suffering in silence?’'

Bouneff anticipates people hurting more in the future, likening the coronavirus pandemic to a natural disaster.

“If this nears a large disaster like Hurricane Katrina, there is a flood coming,” he said. “I think we’re all preparing for that.’'

(c)2020 The Oregonian (Portland, Ore.)