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Crisis professionals bracing for hotlines to heat up

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

SANTA FE – With thousands of people in New Mexico quarantined in their homes, suicide and crisis hotlines in the state say they expect an increase in calls in upcoming weeks as the impact of the coronavirus takes its toll on people’s mental health.

“We are preparing to ensure that we are able to take every single call,” said Wendy Linebrink, program director for New Mexico Crisis and Access Line, which takes calls from across the state.

Crisis hotlines, like so many other institutions, have had to change their operations to protect employees while they continue to provide services.

NMCAL currently has all of its call takers working from home.

NMCAL usually takes around 5,000 calls a month. While that number has not changed recently, Linebrink said the type of people using it is expected to.

“We might begin seeing more professionals calling us, because they are still working and being exposed,” she said.

People who are staying in their homes during the crisis are also calling in large numbers.

“They say it’s just been hard being inside, being alone, looking at the same setting,” said Jared Miller, one of the call takers. “It’s kind of wearing on some individuals.”

Call volume is expected to increase as the crisis continues, Linebrink said, as environment stressors last from weeks to months.

NMCAL has three shifts of 20 full-time call takers and more can be contacted if they see a surge in calls, she said.

However, for crisis centers relying on volunteers, keeping a full staff has proven difficult.

The Agora Crisis Center, operated by the University of New Mexico, relies almost entirely on a volunteer staff who cannot work from home.

Molly McCoy Brack, Agora’s executive director, said they have a maximum of three staff members taking calls at any time.

“It’s probably often only one person on shift at a time,” she said.

She said Agora took 1,200 calls last month, although that does not represent the total number of callers since phone lines are often busy. Unanswered callers are directed to a nationwide crisis hotline and encouraged to leave a message.

Many of those calls are also related to the virus, McCoy Brack said.

“People are struggling with suddenly being confined to their home,” she said. “That’s coming up more than usual.”

Agora and NMCAL also offer resources for those struggling with substance abuse, domestic violence and food insecurity.

Miller said although the work can be difficult, being able to help people during a crisis continues to motivate call takers.

“I think that’s been what helps us at work,” he said.

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