Suicides and suicide-related 911 calls not showing spike in Travis County during pandemic

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AUSTIN (KXAN) — As we head into the week of Thanksgiving, many Americans continue to struggle mentally with the stress and burdens brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic. Mental health experts predict it’s only going to get worse as we enter the winter months.

Last month, the American Psychological Association reported stress, mental health, substance use challenges, and suicide risk are on the rise.

The good news is local data reveals more people have been reaching out for mental health guidance during the pandemic through help line phone numbers. In addition, KXAN discovered suicides and suicide-related 911 calls are not showing a spike in Travis County.

According to case information provided by the Travis County Medical Examiner’s Office, there were almost twice as many suicides in 2019 from March-October compared to the same timeframe this year during the pandemic.

Here’s a look at the comparison:

  • 2020: 55 suicides (March-Oct)
  • 2019: 96 suicides (March-Oct)

In addition, suicide-related calls in Austin made to 911 between March and September in 2019 compared to 2020 are about the same. These were the numbers provided by the Austin Police Department:

  • 2020: 233 suicide-related calls (March-Sept)
  • 2019: 222 suicide-related calls (March-Sept)

The data includes attempted suicide and suicide calls.

The city of San Marcos also reported very little difference in the number of suicides and suicide-related calls made to 911 dispatchers between this year and last. From January-July 2020, the city said there were calls from 176 suicidal persons and four suicides. During the same period last year, there were 173 call from suicidal persons and three suicides.

“I think it’s important to recognize that while these numbers may not reflect an increase we are early on in this whole experience of this global pandemic,” said Karen Ranus, Executive Director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Central Texas. “The reality is if we are paying close attention to our mental health at this time we may avoid an increase in suicides.”

Ranus believes it could be another six to nine months before we see the full mental health impact of the pandemic. She said what’s vital right now is to recognize the chronic stress, anxiety and grief people are experiencing and to have proactive conversations about next steps. Ranus is also encouraged by the rise in community efforts to address the mental health crisis during COVID-19.

Integral Care, the local mental health authority in Travis County, said it has seen a 19% increase in calls to it’s 24/7 crisis helpline (512-472-HELP) compared to call volume prior to March. It has also supported more than 11,700 people affected by the pandemic through outreach, individual counseling, public and individual education, trauma supports and connection to community resources.

The city of Austin just launched a COVID-19 Health & Wellness Support Line for people to call (1-888-855-7483) who need to be connected with mental health services. Anyone can call, but the 24-hour service provided by Alliance Work Partners was created with a specific group in mind: those working in customer-facing roles like food and beverage, retail, and hospitality. Those who call speak with a trained counselor who can help identify the assistance and services that fit their needs.

“We’re very careful to do a thorough assessment and try to pair persons with the service that’s going to do the most good,” said Rick Dielman, AWP Chief Account Executive.

Since the help line launched Friday, the city of Austin said about two dozen people have called. AWP said it is prepared to add call takers if the volume increases.

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