California’s suicide prevention hotlines help many, but could do more

California’s network of suicide prevention hotlines successfully provide a “valuable and trusted service” to people in need, but they could be doing more to improve outreach and quality of of calls, according to a new report from the RAND Corporation in Santa Monica.

The California Mental Health Services Authority (CalMHSA) hired RAND, a non-profit research organization, to analyze and evaluate the effectiveness of spending for the state’s 90 suicide prevention hotlines, which are funded in part by Proposition 63 or the millionaire’s tax.

“Our evaluation shows that suicide prevention hotlines available to California residents provide a trusted and valuable service, but much can be done to make them more accessible and to improve the quality of their services,” said Rajeev Ramchand, lead author of the study. “For example, digital services lag behind a growing demand and integrating more hotlines into existing health care systems could better connect callers to needed mental health services.”

The analysis involved quality monitoring of 241 calls at 12 different centers, 26% of which involved conversations about suicide and over half of which involved callers with mental health or substance use problems.

In California, 4,214 residents took their own lives in 2014. There are more than twice as many suicides as homicides in the state — about one every two hours. Whites and American Indians are statistically more likely to commit suicide than Blacks, Hispanics, or Asians, and men are eight times more likely to kill themselves following a divorce.

However, many of the people who call the suicide prevention hotlines are difficult cases with few alternatives. “These are people who have flunked out of the mental health system, the health care system,” said Eve Meyer, executive director of the San Francisco Suicide Prevention call center. “Our job is to listen and figure what will work for them.”