Calls to suicide helplines up dramatically since death of Robin Williams

Posted at 6:00 PM, Aug 18, 2014
and last updated 2014-08-18 18:28:23-04

GRANDVILLE, Mich. — Suicide prevention helplines in West Michigan have seen a dramatic increase in the amount of calls coming in since the death of legendary comedian Robin Williams last Monday.

While it might be difficult to think about anything positive coming out of a tragedy like Williams' death, Tim Allen, a licensed clinical supervisor with ProtoCall Services in Grandville, Mich., says it's provided an opportunity for people who might not have thought to call otherwise.

"Calls are coming to this center from most of Michigan, but are also coming into this center from around the country from organizations we`ve partnered with to provide support," Allen said.

Organizations like Community Mental Health Services and the National Suicide Lifeline direct some of its calls to the Grandville center to ensure there's a good chance there will always be someone on the other end of the line to answer.

Allen says calls into the center have increased easily by at least 30 percent since news of Robin Williams' death broke.

"Frequently after something like that in the nation we get a bump in the number of calls that come to us," he said. "It's been extraordinary after the death of Robin Williams."

The increase in calls is not just from individuals struggling themselves with thoughts of suicide but from what Allen refers to as 'third party callers' — friends or family calling because they're concerned about a loved one.

"There is a fear that if one asks a friend if they're thinking about suicide you may trigger a suicide but we know that not to be true," Allen said of the importance of breaking down pervasive myths like that one.

"We may talk to them about their own issues, we may talk to them about how to keep a friend safe, make them feel a little more comfortable with opening the conversation."

Because of strict HIPAA laws and the confidentiality associated with these types of calls, FOX 17 had to be extremely careful about what was recorded while at the call center.

One of the counselors agreed to run through a mock call with some of the questions a person might receive like:

  • "Are you thinking that's something you really want to do today?"
  • "What's been going on today that's been bothering you more than usual?"
  • "Is there anyone there with you who would be able to support you or talk you through the situation?"

While Allen says they've been able to have more potentially life-saving conversations with people in recent days, when it comes to mental health awareness and resources, there's still a long road to go.

"Our community at large in the U.S. needs to put more energy into protecting the lives of people who struggle with addictions and ongoing mental illness, we don`t do enough," he said.

Data from the Kent County Medical Examiner's Annual Report for 2013, the most recent year complete data is available, shows the number of suicides in the county has steadily increased since 2010 when there were 53. In 2013 that number rose to 75 with the majority of individuals being middle aged men between the ages of 20 and 40 years old.

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