Suicide hotlines are based on the simple idea that a conversation with a sympathetic stranger can save a life. Historically, most suicide hotlines have been run by volunteers without advanced degrees in counseling or related fields, and there’s research to suggest that nonexperts are at least as effective, if not more so, than professionals at helping suicidal callers.
Today, volunteers are an integral part of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the free 24/7 hotline available throughout the United States at 1-800-273-TALK (8255).* More than half of the roughly 170 crisis call centers that make up the Lifeline recruit volunteers from the general public and train them to handle calls. Those volunteers work at the front lines of one of the nation’s most vexing public-health crises, a suicide rate that has risen steadily in the past 20 years, in defiance of a global downward trend. More than 47,000 people died by suicide in the U.S. in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Calls to the Lifeline have risen in parallel. This year, it expects to receive 2.5 million calls, an all-time high. But that might represent only a small fraction of Americans at risk. For every person who dies by suicide, 280 people seriously consider it, according to estimates by the CDC and the federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA. In the U.S., that translates to roughly 13 million people.