TWIN FALLS • Two years after its inception, the Idaho Suicide Prevention Hotline is expanding to provide around-the-clock help.
As of Wednesday, the Boise phone center is taking calls 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The hotline (1-800-273-TALK) provides help to Idahoans who are in crisis or suicidal, and connects them with local resources.
“I think it’s just absolutely important for the people in our community,” said Lori Stewart, past south-central Idaho chairwoman of Suicide Prevention Action Network of Idaho.
Before the expansion, after-hours calls were fielded to other crisis lines — often, in Portland.
“There’s an instant friendly voice to get them through that immediate crisis, but there’s no follow up on that,” Stewart said.
Now, Idaho’s hotline is adding coverage on Sundays, as well as Sunday through Thursday overnight hours to its existing schedule.
The Gem State has the eighth highest suicide rate in the United States.
But Idaho went without a suicide prevention hotline for six years, until it was launched in November 2012.
When it first started, 18 volunteers staffed the hotline during daytime hours Monday through Thursday. Sometimes, they went an entire day without getting any calls.
Now, the hotline receives anywhere from 10 to 20 calls per day. “That has certainly gone up,” executive director John Reusser said.
Volunteers often request a welfare check for someone who isn’t able to stay safe, he said.
For callers who need immediate help, the hotline can dispatch adult and children’s mental health teams throughout Idaho.
There are 60 volunteers trained to answer calls, but Reusser hopes to boost the ranks to least 80.
Volunteers receive about 40 hours of training and shadow workers in the phone room before taking their first call.
Calls are answered overnight by a paid staff member, Reusser said. “That’s really challenging to find volunteers to do overnight shifts.”
In 2013, the hotline received $75,000 to expand services to 60 hours per week. And in June, it expanded again to include Saturday hours.
Over the past two years, the hotline has been able to boost hours thanks to donations from agencies such as the Department of Health and Welfare, United Way, J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Foundation and hospitals.
But the hotline, which is a program of Mountain States Group, doesn’t have long-term sustainable funding, Reusser said.
And help is needed. The Gem State’s suicide rate was 44 percent higher than the national average in 2012, according to SPAN of Idaho.
And last year, more than 300 people committed suicide.
Possible factors for Idaho’s high numbers include a lack of knowledge of where to find services and a culture of rugged individualism with a stigma attached to asking for help, Stewart said.
There needs to be an open conversation, she said. “Everyone goes through hard times and we don’t want that person to feel alone.”
In the Magic Valley, the suicide hotline number is prominently displayed at the I.B. Perrine Bridge.
The local SPAN chapter is also airing radio ads throughout the Magic Valley to raise awareness about suicide prevention. And the group participated in the Festival of Giving last month.
“We want to be visible in the community,” Stewart said.