BOISE – Five years ago, Idaho became the only state without a certified, statewide suicide prevention hotline.
Residents in crisis still had a number to call, but the voice on the other end was 400 miles away in Portland. That meant it wasn’t someone familiar with the isolation that comes with living in a rural region where mental health services are few and far-flung, said Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline Director John Reusser.
Over the next few years, the economy worsened. Soldiers, troubled by the stresses of war, came home. And Idaho’s suicide rate – consistently among the highest in the nation – climbed.
“We consistently hover between fourth and sixth in the country for rates of completed suicides,” said Reusser. “I know the national hotline was better than nothing, in terms of a resource for people to call, but I don’t think it’s as effective as a hotline that’s dedicated to the state of Idaho.”
The last statewide hotline closed in spring 2007 as funding dropped. At the time, Idaho’s suicide rate was nearly 15 completed suicides per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 11 per 100,000 people, according to the Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho. By 2009, the number of Idaho suicides had climbed to nearly 20 per 100,000 residents, compared to the national average of 12.
“When the last hotline shut down, there really wasn’t the sort of broad-based support and momentum to have one here. We’re kind of a frontier state, and we have a big ethic of self-reliance here, encouraging people to rely on their community supports,” he said. “Idaho is 49th in the nation for mental health funding. And ironically, a hotline is one of those things that allows people to get more help for themselves.”
Olympic silver medalist Jeret “Speedy” Peterson, who grew up in Idaho and trained at Bogus Basin Mountain just outside of Boise, shot himself to death in Utah last summer. Authorities said he called 911 shortly before his death, and a suicide note was found nearby. Peterson’s family and friends established The Speedy Foundation in his memory, raising money to prevent suicide and support education. All of the money The Speedy Foundation raises in Idaho goes to the hotline, Reusser said.
Peterson’s death, combined with an increase in suicides among veterans, increased awareness in Idaho, Reusser said. Lawmakers gave the hotline their support and $110,000 of the state budget, and the Idaho Department of Health and Welfare and Division of Behavioral Health contributed another $175,000. That money, combined with another $53,000 from the United Way of Treasure Valley, gave the organization enough for startup costs and two years of funding, said Reusser.
The new hotline was originally slated to open Monday, but that date has been pushed back because the organization that grants accreditation is based in Manhattan and dealing with the effects of Superstorm Sandy. The hotline is still expected to be running before the end of the year, he said.
The Portland call center was averaging between 10 and 15 calls a day from Idaho residents. Reusser said he expects the statewide hotline to field more calls as the advertising campaign takes effect. The hotline will use specialized software to track the demographics of those who call – all while maintaining their anonymity, if the caller desires – so organizers will be able to tell if the hotline leads to a decline in the number of suicide attempts.
“We’re really hoping to prevent attempts by getting people hooked up with resources before they reach that point,” he said. “We’ll help them delay attempting, help them explore their ambivalence around taking their own lives, provide them with some hope and then some concrete action they can take around getting help. Hotlines are a big part of preventative care.”