Crisis center phone operators help combat higher suicide rates

MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) -- Telephone operators at a Dane County crisis hotline center are helping combat the rise in suicide rates across the nation.

Audrey Johnson answers the suicide hotline at Journey Mental Health Center.

According to a recent study published in JAMA Network Open, the rate of suicides among Americans ages 25 to 64 rose by 41 percent. The study, which looked at data between 1999 and 2016, also suggested that suicide rates among people in rural counties are 25 percent higher than those in urban areas.

When callers using an area code 608 number dial the national suicide hotline, they are routed to the Journey Mental Health Center in Madison. Operators like Aubrey Johnson pick up the phone. The center receives an average of 100 to 140 calls per day.

“I am the first voice that a person hears,” Johnson said. “I am the pulse of the unit.”

Johnson said she makes sure to be caring and compassionate, that is when she does talk.

“I do so much more listening than I do talking,” she said. “You can’t make a promise to someone and say everything is going to be okay because it might not be. But what you can do is be there with them on the phone when they’re having a difficult time.”

Johnson’s efforts at the hotline center are effective, according to John Boyne, a counselor at Madison College.

“When people are in a suicidal crisis, it's usually short lived,” Boyne said. “Anything that can delay it or give them a brief amount of hope or a connection to a person or human being can be very effective in interrupting a suicidal moment.”

Boyne and Johnson both said that some people call the hotline because there is nobody else who they feel can support them. Boyne added that a social stigma, especially for men and veterans, makes a call with a stranger more comforting.

Operators will answer the National Suicide Prevention Line 24/7. You can reach them at 1-800-273-TALK.

To call the Journey Center directly, dial 608-280-2600.