COVID-19: Calls to NYC Crisis Hotline Soar

Megan Brooks

April 28, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Calls to a mental health crisis hotline in New York City have soared during the COVID-19 pandemic, which has closed schools and businesses, put millions out of work, and ushered in stay-at-home orders.

"Crisis hotlines are a core part of our nation's mental health safety net, ensuring that care is available when and where needed during a crisis, whether that be an individual crisis, a local community crisis, or a national mental health crisis like we are facing right now," said Kimberly Williams, president and chief executive officer of Vibrant Emotional Health.

Vibrant Emotional Health, formerly the Mental Health Association of New York City, provides crisis line services across the United States in partnership with local and federal governments and corporations. NYC Well is one of them.

Williams and two of her colleagues spoke about crisis hotlines April 25 during the American Psychiatric Association's (APA's) Virtual Spring Highlights Meeting.

Rapid Crisis Intervention

Crisis hotlines provide "rapid crisis intervention, delivering help immediately from trained crisis counselors who respond to unique needs, actively engage in collaborative problem solving, and assess risk for suicide," Williams said.

They have a proven track record, she noted. Research shows that they are able to decrease emotional distress and reduce suicidality in crisis situations.

Kelly Clarke, program director of NYC Well, noted that inbound call volume has increased roughly 50% since the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Callers to NYC Well most commonly report mood/anxiety concerns, stressful life events, and interpersonal problems. "Many people are reaching out to seek support in how to manage their own emotional well-being in light of the pandemic and the restrictions put in place," said Clarke.

Multilingual peer support specialists and counselors with NYC Well provide free, confidential support by talk, text, or chat 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, 365 days a year. The service also provides mobile crisis teams and follow-up services.

NYC Well has set up a landing page of resources specifically geared toward COVID-19.

How to cope with the rapid growth and at the same time ensure high quality of services are two key challenges for NYC Well, Clarke said.

"Absolutely Essential" Service

For John Draper, PhD, the experience early in his career of working on a mobile mental health crisis team in Brooklyn, New York, "changed his life."

First, it showed him that for people who are severely psychiatrically ill, "care has to come to them," said Draper, executive vice president of national networks for Vibrant Emotional Health.

"So many of the people we were seeing were too depressed to get out of bed, much less get to a clinic, and I realized our system was not set up to serve its customers. It was like putting a spinal cord injury clinic at the top of a stairs," he said.

Crisis hotlines are "absolutely essential." Their value for communities and individuals "can't be overestimated," said Draper.

This was revealed after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and now with COVID-19, said Draper. He noted that following the attacks of 9/11, a federal report referred to crisis hotlines as "the single most important asset in the response."

American Psychiatric Association's (APA's) Virtual Spring Highlights Meeting. Presented April 25, 2020.

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