Answering the call: WMBF Investigates looks into new national lifeline number

Published: Jul. 7, 2022 at 7:42 PM EDT|Updated: Jul. 15, 2022 at 10:30 PM EDT
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MYRTLE BEACH, S.C. (WMBF) - In less than two weeks, there will be a new national suicide prevention hotline number: 988.

While 1-800-273-TALK (8255) isn’t going away, the change is expected to bring a greater call volume.

In South Carolina, there is only one call center answering the calls as more than 100 people call Mental Health America of Greenville County every day.

The calls range from people dealing with a mental health crisis to those having suicidal thoughts and others just people needing someone to talk to.

”What we know for sure is that listening matters. We all have enough people in our life telling us what to do, how we should fix things, but our tool really is listening, and empowering people to make the choices and decisions they can without judgment,” said Jennifer Piver, Executive Director of Mental Health America of Greenville County.

But what happens when there are more calls than people to answer them?

Piver says right now there are 52 workstations with phones between her office and a satellite office in Greer.

Only three-to-six people cover those phones each day.

”At the highest...yes, six. Every now and then we have eight for training,” said Piver.

With the national suicide hotline changing to 988, Mental Health America expects the number of calls to rise drastically eventually reaching four to eight times the number of calls each day into calls centers across the country.

”It’s just easier to remember. If I broke my femur, the largest bone in the body, and you said Dennis, give me directions to your house, it’s a simple task, but I probably couldn’t do it, because I’m in that much pain. The same holds true for someone in a mental health crisis. It sounds simple, but you probably couldn’t do it,” said Dennis Gillan, the Executive Director for Half a Sorrow Foundation.

He created the foundation in 2020, recognizing the need that exists throughout South Carolina.

He travels across the state speaking about his brothers, who both died by suicide.

“I’ve got two brothers to talk about. My brother Mark and my brother Matthew. So this is an issue near and dear to my heart,” said Gillan. “But the number zero, I don’t care what your skin color is, what your religion is, what your demographic is, zero would be a great number, and we could dream.”

But Matthew and Mark show that zero is not the reality.

In 2019 Horry County saw 51 suicides. In 2020, DHEC data shows that number rose to 64.

Specifically in Horry County, WMBF Investigates learned that men die by suicide five times more often than women.

“There are two types of people in the world, those who have thoughts of suicide and liars,” said Pastor Greg Van Dyke of St. Peter’s Lutheran Church in Pawley’s Island.

Van Dyke heard that for the first time in a psychology class he took in college. It stuck with him ever since.

“Suicide is like addiction,” he said. “We like to keep at arm’s length, and feel like it could never happen to me my family, those I care about.”

While Van Dyke is not clinically trained, he’s woven suicide prevention into his congregation. He thinks the new hotline number is needed, but he also knows the Grand Strand needs more resources.

”It’s not just any sort of demographic, it’s that whole ocean of human beings, that whole ocean of human beings and if we could just be lifeguards, then I think we could save lives,” said Van Dyke.

Guarding lives. It’s what less than half a dozen people do every day in Greenville. They answer calls for the Upstate, Midlands, Lowcountry, Grand Stand and the Pee Dee.

But is it enough?

”I am hoping to see that we have sustainable funding going forward,” said Piver. “That we can spend all of our time doing the best that we can for every caller, chatter and texter, with well-trained staff and enough staff to make sure 100 percent of the calls are answered in the state.”

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