Suicide prevention hotline number becomes 988 across the U.S.
Host Amber Smith: Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, invites you to be The Informed Patient with the podcast that features experts from Central New York's only academic medical center. I'm your host, Amber Smith.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will have one uniform, three-digit phone number, no matter where in the country you're calling from. Today, I'm talking with Cheryl Giarrusso. She's the division director of crisis services for Contact Community Services in Syracuse, which provides a 24-hour support service, and which celebrated 50 years of service in 2021.
Welcome to "The Informed Patient," Ms. Giarrusso.
Cheryl Giarrusso: Thank you for having me.
Host Amber Smith: Contact provides a regional suicide and crisis counseling hotline, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. How many calls do you average per day or per week?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Well, I kind of broke it down to monthly, and we're at about 7,000 calls a month right now.
And that's across all lines. So we do provide support in many different areas in the community, and our call volume ranges at about 7,000 monthly.
Host Amber Smith: What sorts of calls come in to Contact's hotline?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Our local hotline, which is celebrating its 50th year, is a "warm" line. We've been talking with folks for many, many years about whatever it is they really need to share.
So it's what we like to say, a safe place to talk things out. So we've had folks calling us since the beginning of the service in 1971. And some still do call us on a regular basis just to share what's going to happen during their day or what may have happened the night before that was worthy of having a conversation about, so it's really a safe place to talk.
Host Amber Smith: It sounds like a counseling service.
Cheryl Giarrusso: It can be, absolutely. We use an active listening model, so we're not directive, we're just a place for folks to share because we feel that people can really solve their own problems if given the space and time and ability to share whatever it is that's on their minds. People know themselves well enough that they can solve their own problems. They really just need a sounding board. And that's what we try to provide on the Contact hotline.
Host Amber Smith: What's the difference between "hotline" and -- you called it -- a "warm" line?
Cheryl Giarrusso: I think warm line is not necessarily closely associated with crisis. Although there are people who call the Contact hotline who are experiencing some level of crisis, and we're certainly prepared to respond to those folks when they call. but hotline I think is more associated with a crisis type of call, and warm line is reassurance and a listening line.
Host Amber Smith: And we should say, what is the phone number that people can dial?
Cheryl Giarrusso: 315-251-0600 is the Contact hotline number.
Host Amber Smith: And then the three-digit number that will work starting from July 2022 going forward is just simply 988?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Yes, 988 will be the three-digit number that you can call. It is currently the national suicide prevention lifeline number, which is 1-800-273-8255. So you can see that 988 will really make it easier for people to reach out. It's easy to remember, and we're anticipating that it will be a real help to the folks in our community.
Host Amber Smith: Have you seen that the numbers of phone calls coming into Contact have been affected by the pandemic in any way?
Cheryl Giarrusso: I think that call volume has been on the rise throughout the pandemic, even prior to the pandemic, we had some losses and not necessarily in the community, but some high-profile losses, that really affected folks, and call volume began to increase at that point in time and continues to increase.
I think what we see, due to the pandemic, is that the type of call, the concern, the level of anxiety, has been elevated, I think, due to all that we've gone through because of the pandemic.
Host Amber Smith: When it's normal times, aside from the pandemic, are there fluctuations when you see phone calls coming in? are you busier in the summer or the winter or holiday times?
Cheryl Giarrusso: You know, this may seem odd, but April is a month where we seem to get an increase in, especially in, calls of a higher level of crisis. And some suicidologists say that that's because people are anticipating wellness, a feeling of wellness, coming on as the spring approaches. And if that doesn't happen, things don't change, then crisis arises again.
So April is that critical time for that to happen.
Host Amber Smith: Experts have said our nation has a child mental health crisis, even before the pandemic began, what do you think is the reason for this and what is being done to help?
Cheryl Giarrusso: I could speak to what we see here in the call center. I came to contact almost 20 years ago to head up a program focusing on child mental health. So it is a problem that's been with us for quite a long time. I think that resources are short. I think that it takes a special person to be able to address children's mental health. It's different from adult mental health. I believe that there's been a shortage of providers.
I think that, from what I hear, it's tough to think about your child or any child experiencing a mental health emergency or having mental health issues. It's just hard for people to wrap their heads around. So I think that the pandemic has really shown a strong spotlight on that. And that's a double-edged sword.
It's been sad to to see the struggles that kids have been going through, but I think that we're at the point where we can really band together as a community and use our resources to help kids.
Host Amber Smith: This is Upstate's "The Informed Patient" podcast. I'm your host, Amber Smith, talking with Cheryl Giarrusso, the division director of crisis services for Contact Community Services in Syracuse.
Is there an age limit for callers to Contact?
Cheryl Giarrusso: No. We get callers from the very young to the very old, sometimes we have moms or dads that put their young child on the phone because they have a question or a concern, and they feel that we would be the right folks to answer that question or concern. So we've had some very young kids. We've got people on our Telecare program that, are older folks, and they call or we call on a regular basis. So there's no age limit.
Host Amber Smith: And can people opt for a web chat instead of a phone call?
Cheryl Giarrusso: We provide web, we provide texting support through our 211 program. We have an opioid textline where you would text "opioid" to 898211, or if you need a resource in the community, you can text your ZIP code to 898211, and we can provide support and resources.
Host Amber Smith: I want to talk to you more about this three-digit dialing code, the 988 number and why it's important to the mental health community to have this nationwide where everyone would dial the same number, similar to 911, only this is 988. Is it just for mental health crisis?
Cheryl Giarrusso: It's really an emotional support line. Certainly we will be prepared to address mental health crises, but it's a safe place, again, similar to the Contact hotline. It's a safe place to talk. If you are experiencing any sort of an emotional crisis, dialing 988 will be the first step toward wellness.
Host Amber Smith: Do some people who are contemplating (suicide) call the hotline?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Yes. We speak with people on a daily basis who are experiencing suicidal ideation, or thinking about ending their lives. That doesn't necessarily mean that they will take the next steps, but they know that they can call and they can share how they're feeling and they will be addressed by a nonjudgmental listener who allows them the space and the time to share what has brought them to that point. And again, once they're able to share that information and really get it out in the open, that's the beginning of finding ways to feel that life is worth living.
Host Amber Smith: So people should call 988 if they're worried about someone who might be contemplating suicide, too?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Absolutely. We are able to share information and educate people because for a person who knows of someone who's having thoughts of suicide, they're in a crisis of their own. So we've got two crises going on. So we are able to provide that concerned party with support, a little bit of education, and if they feel that they can't address the issue on their own, we're able to provide a support to a third party call, so we can make a call on behalf of the person who's concerned.
Host Amber Smith: If someone calls 911 by mistake, and they meant to dial 988, what would happen?
Cheryl Giarrusso: If someone calls 911 and meant to dial 988, the 911 operator will be able to divert that call to our call center, and we will be able to respond.
Host Amber Smith: Well, I'd like to know more about the other services that Contact provides. What is Telecare?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Telecare is a reassurance program. We have been at that program for about 10 years now. So we provide daily, outgoing reassurance calls to people who often are homebound, sometimes isolated, people who really would benefit from a friendly connection on a daily basis. Sometimes they need a medication reminder or just to hear someone on the other end of the line who wants to make sure they're OK and safe. So it's a great program. We have grown to, I believe, over a hundred folks that we reach out to on a daily basis. And it's one of our favorites, to make the calls. And I think that the people that we call are very pleased with the program as well.
Host Amber Smith: So just to stay in touch, a well-check.
Cheryl Giarrusso: It is a wellness check,and we're actually going to expand to make it a more robust wellness check, do some fall-hazard kind of checks and home safety checks. It's a great way to keep people at home and out of institutional care, I think.
Host Amber Smith: I understand people can dial 211 in Onondaga, Oswego, Jefferson. Lewis and St. Lawrence counties. What is that for?
Cheryl Giarrusso: 211 is an information and referral number. So if you have a need andyou dial 211, then we can connect you with services that can meet that need. That could be a food pantry. It could be diapers or formula. It could be a shelter issue. You may need some legal information. It's a wide variety of services that are available in the communities. And we have a database that's up to date, and we can provide information and, again, that listening ear and that, compassionate, concerning response.
Host Amber Smith: You also offer some school services. Can you tell us a little about those?
Cheryl Giarrusso: We do. We also offer school services from preschool all the way up to high school, and we're in many of the city schools and in the North Syracuse school district. We do now have a very exciting suicide safety in schools program that we've just launched. Andwe're very excited to bridge the gap between the crisis line and the school services through the suicide safety in schools program.
Host Amber Smith: Are there additional future plans for contact that you'd like to share?
Cheryl Giarrusso: Well, we're just really trying to get ourselves up and running with 988. And we are partnering with our 911 center around the 988 calls. Andwe're always looking to partner with the community, to make sure that the folks in Central New York are safe and have a safe place to talk.
Host Amber Smith: Well, thank you for making time for this interview, Ms. Giarusso.
Cheryl Giarrusso: Thank you for having me.
Host Amber Smith: My guest has been Cheryl Giarrusso, the division director for crisis services for Contact Community Services in Syracuse. "The Informed Patient" is a podcast covering health, science and medicine, brought to you by Upstate Medical University in Syracuse, New York, and produced by Jim Howe.
Find our archive of previous episodes at upstate.edu/informed. This is your host, Amber Smith, thanking you for listening.