Lifeline – an innovative and accessible resource for Vermont suicide prevention

IF YOU KNOW SOMEONE IN CRISIS OR ARE IN CRISIS YOURSELF Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (Lifeline) at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), or text the Crisis Text Line (text HELLO to 741741). Both services are free and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

“You saved my life this morning. I was not in a good place. Thank you for being there.” These were the words of relief shared in a follow up phone call from an individual seeking supports from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in Vermont, which is operated by Northeast Kingdom Human Services. Another caller comforted by speaking with Lifeline call responder said, thank you for listening. My family and friends just don’t get it. I’m glad I knew to call you.”

“Thank you for listening. My family and friends just don’t get it. I’m glad I knew to call you.” – Young man that had his first break up

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides free and confidential emotional support to people in suicidal crisis or emotional distress 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, across the United States. The Lifeline is comprised of a national network of over 180 local crisis centers, combining custom local care and resources with national standards and best practices.

Northwestern Counseling and Support Services (NCSS) and Northeast Kingdom Human Services (NKHS) are two certified crisis centers offering 24/7, local support to Vermonters who are actively suicidal or experiencing a mental health crisis.

According to the Vermont Department of Health suicide is the 2nd leading cause of death for people age 10-44, and the 8th leading cause of death overall in the state of Vermont. The Department reports that suicidal ideation and self-harm have been on the rise over the last several years.

Terri Lavely, a Northeast Kingdom Human Services (NKHS) Lifeline crisis staff member says, “Every individual’s drivers for suicidal thoughts are different. Often, it is the straw that breaks the camel’s back that leads to these thoughts.” Lavely continues to note that when someone is struggling and doesn’t know what to do, they sometimes resort to suicide. Having a trained, skilled, and supportive person who can get to the root of the issues can, and has, saved lives and sometimes the most impactful way to support someone who is actively suicidal is to work through tangible problems.

Lavely continues to highlight good supports by saying, “One thing that is important, as a support, is to be able to sit comfortably in the uncomfortable. Not to judge or have all the answers, but to actively listen to the caller’s stressors. We know suicide is the long-term solution to short term problems. If we can help with the drivers to those short-term problems, then suicide is no longer the answer. That looks different for each person in crisis.”

History of the Lifeline in Vermont

Left to Right: Terri Lavely, NKHS Lifeline, Tony Stevens, NCSS Lifeline, and Debbie Babbie, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention VT Chapter Chair
The Lifeline, a national crisis support provided by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, has been in existence since 2005. Vermont added their first certified crisis center two years ago.

NCSS began answering the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in August of 2019. At that time NCSS was the only certified call center in Vermont. Prior to that all Vermonters calling into the Lifeline would have their calls routed to Headrest in New Hampshire as that was the closest possible Lifeline answering center. By adding an in-state option, answer rates within VT went from zero to well over 70% instantly. NKHS joined NCSS as the second certified crisis center in Vermont.

Anthony Stevens, NCSS’ Emergency Services Director, is glad to be partnering with NKHS. “When NKHS came on board as VT’s second certified Lifeline answering center, Vermont then had 24/7 coverage of Vermonter’s calls being answered in state, by local clinicians with an increased knowledge of Vermont’s unique culture and resources. NCSS’ partnership with NKHS has been a wonderful addition to the safety net that serves all Vermonters struggling with suicidal thoughts or in emotional distress.”

Lifeline was designed to be responsive with a live person as soon as possible. On June 22nd, 2021, NKHS went live with Lifeline, covering 105 hours per week, primarily overnights and weekends. From June through November of this year, NKHS answered 596 calls from Vermonters experiencing mental health crises. 94% of those calls were handled and deescalated over the phone with safety planning and referrals for supports and, on average, a live person was available within 30 seconds of calling.

Having this resource readily available is vitally important for supporting a person experiencing a mental health crisis. Gillian McDonald, a Lifeline Call Responder says, “Working for lifeline and supporting callers who have suicidal ideation is like riding a roller coaster. Every time you answer the phone, you never know what to expect, but being able to talk to hundreds of people, listen to their stories, and sympathize with their feelings allows them to feel less alone and remember they do have a purpose in this world. Being a lifeline worker is not always easy, but the job we have is powerful and allows us to connect to individuals who really need support in their time of crisis.”

Al Carbonneau of Headrest says, “It has been a blessing that NCSS and NKHS have stepped up and taken on the hugely needed task of offering a 24/7 call center in Vermont for Vermonters in crisis. Headrest’s Executive Director and myself took a trip to Vermont to check out their operation and were very impressed by what we saw.”

What is Next for Mental Health and Suicide Supports in Vermont?

In July of 2022, in order to make dialing easier and to improve access, the current Lifeline phone number (1-800-273-TALK) will be replaced by 988, which will become the three-digit dialing code of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. 988 represents a long past due opportunity to shift from a law enforcement and justice system response to one of immediately connecting to care for individuals in suicidal, mental health and substance use crises. The number is the first step to make a fundamental shift in how people in crisis are engaged in our communities. When you’ve got a safety, fire or rescue emergency, you call 911. When you have an urgent mental health need, you’ll call 988.

When you’ve got a safety, fire or rescue emergency, you call 911. When you have an urgent mental health need, you’ll call 988.

Anthony Stevens says, “Together all three call centers collaborate and meet weekly to share best practices and data so that all call centers are consistent with each other in how to best support the needs of callers. We look forward to this continued partnership with all three call centers as the needs of callers and the overall call volume increases steadily.”

Since 1960, Northeast Kingdom Human Services continues to help people build better lives by providing services and advocacy to adults, children, and families in Caledonia, Essex, and Orleans Counties. The NKHS mission is to empower individuals, families, and communities by promoting hope, healing, and support. NKHS has a vision to be leaders in rural health and human services by offering programs that are innovative, flexible, and comprehensive. NKHS professionals provide case management, community and home supports, residential care, psychiatry, medication management, therapy, vocational supports, school based counseling, emergency care and respite in our offices and in the communities we serve.

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This article is part of a series collaboratively produced by Vermont Care Partners and its members. Vermont Care Partners is a statewide network of sixteen non-profit, community-based agencies providing mental health, substance use and intellectual and developmental disability support.