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When I called the suicide hotline last year, I was put on hold

The launch of 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is a welcome change, but only time will tell if it can meet the growing need for mental health services long-term.

I was moved to hear that a new lifeline for mental health, a three-digit number — 988 — to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, will launch on Saturday. 

In a moment of crisis, it will be easier to remember than the 10-digit hotline number and increase access for those in need. But the network, made up of about 200 call centers and supported by federal, state, local and private funds, needs more than just a new number if it wants to meet the high demand for its help line. It needs more money and people. 

I knew the signs and symptoms that constituted major depressive disorder. But it was harder to see them in myself.

With the launch of 988, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration expects the hotline to be contacted (through calls, texts and chats) 7.6 million times by July 2023. That’s more than double the current number, and questions have been raised, including from Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, about whether states can handle the influx long-term.  

It’s added pressure to an already strained system. As The Wall Street Journal recently reported, between 2016 and 2021, the hotline received more than 9 million calls; of those, 1.5 million never reached a counselor.  

I know what this feels like firsthand. Last year, when I called the suicide hotline, I was put on hold.

Last April, I headed to Miami to visit family. I’d graduated from New York University that January and couldn’t find a job. I told myself this trip would save me from my resume-writing misery. But my emptiness proved deeper than what sunshine could cure. Within a few days of arrival, I found myself on the edge of a hotel balcony.

With both hands on the rail, I squinted to decipher how far I stood from the ground, and to see if anyone else might be awake. It was too dark to tell. The wind was gaining speed. That morning over coffee I’d overheard a storm was heading right for Miami. Hurricane season was months away, yet nature, alongside my emotions, appeared in a state of disorder.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, suicide is a leading cause of death in the United States, with one death every 11 minutes. In 2020, 12.2 million American adults seriously considered suicide. 

I’ve struggled with depression off and on since high school. Pre-pandemic, I attended weekly therapy. I stopped because the world stopped — it was harder to justify the extra expense and hours confined to a screen when my sessions were virtual. Plus, I’d studied psychology and figured I was fine. I knew the signs and symptoms that constituted major depressive disorder. But it was harder to see them in myself. Or I saw signs but didn’t pay them enough attention. People were dying from Covid-19 — there was no way the darkening of my thoughts was noteworthy. I’d forgotten depression can and does stop lives too. 

Graduating mid-pandemic felt unreal. There was no live ceremony then — no transition from school to “real adulthood” but rather an email and the promise of a degree in the mail. Every day, news revealed more Covid-related deaths, more reasons to be afraid of this world. NYU proceeded to hold an online graduation. A few friends half-heartedly asked if I was attending. All I could muster in response was a blunt “What’s the point?”

I didn’t want a virtual reminder of what might have been. I didn’t want to sit by myself and hear the name of each student who didn’t get a real graduation. The only tangible sign I’d finished school was when I attempted to job-search from NYU’s library and was told by security that alumni were no longer allowed in because of Covid safety measures in place. 

Fear became my routine. Each morning, I scanned job boards; at night, I scanned them again. I wanted to make my own living, to feel that I had something to contribute to society. I obsessively rewrote resumes. I even pushed past my anxious hesitancy to contact alumni I’d never met to ask how they landed a job. Most didn’t respond. The few who did chalked it up to “luck” or “connections,” which I didn’t seem to have or know how to obtain.

I felt ashamed by the rejection, even though many recent graduates were going through the same thing.

Mild depression was so easy to dismiss as exhaustion. A few hours in the sun had to melt my mood, I thought. But pretending negative thoughts weren’t there only allowed them to build. This was how I found myself peering over life’s edge, wanting to know what was on the other side.

That night, my mom went to sleep early. We had a little argument at dinner. But it could’ve been anything that prompted me to push the balcony door open. 

On the ledge, I grew dizzy. I didn’t really want to die, but nothing that was going wrong felt temporary. As I dipped my toe under the railing, time stood still as I played footsie with forever.

On the ledge, I grew dizzy. I didn’t really want to die, but nothing that was going wrong felt temporary.

In the midst of vertigo, I remembered the hotline. At NYU, there’d been so many stickers that reassured, “Help is available. Speak with someone today.”

I pulled out my phone and typed “suicide” into the search bar. 1-800-273-TALK popped onto my screen with a “call” button in bold blue letters. I stared at it, shaking. I had no idea what to expect. Anxiety filled in the gaps: What would they say? What would I say? Could they track my location? I looked over the rail one more time. I hit “call.”

Crackly elevator music was the first thing I heard. The suicide hotline put me on hold.

I waited 15 minutes, wondering if there’d be an answer. Then I hung up. I’d received the only response I hadn’t anticipated: none.  

I sat on the balcony’s warm cement and sobbed. For the first time in months, I heard my breath. I’d forgotten I could sit down just to sit. Slowly, I turned myself around like a parent averting a child from danger. At that moment, I felt like an infant — unsure of anything except for an instinctual need to cry. I hadn’t let myself feel for too long. I’d told myself feelings were a distraction.  

Weeping, I softened. It turned out emotions weren’t distractions but signs. I needed to listen to them — to slow down and rest. I had to give myself permission to acknowledge my pain and the pain of the world in order to face it.

Ironically, the moment no one answered my call was the moment I understood I wasn’t alone. So many people were at their own edges that there weren’t enough crisis counselors to cover it. When I had no tears left, I texted an old therapist for a new appointment. Later, there’d be more work. That night, I opened the balcony door, with my family resting behind it, and let myself back in. 

But that’s not how every story ends. I’m hopeful that with the new 988 hotline there will be enough resources that every caller receives an answer. Suicide is preventable by bolstering economic support, strengthening access and delivery of suicide care, and reducing provider shortages, according to the CDC.

The launch of 988 was made possible because of more than $400 million in federal funding. The money has certainly plugged up holes in the system, but, as Becerra recently told reporters, 988 is not a federal program, which means the success of the new initiative rests at the state and local levels. I hope states can rise to the occasion. If they don’t, I fear the cost of an inadequate budget: unanswered calls, people facing depression alone and, ultimately, preventable deaths.