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Dial tone for the desperate - Government’s dedicated suicide hotlines defective or down

Published:Wednesday | August 15, 2018 | 12:00 AMCarlene Davis

Calls to suicide hot lines set up by the Government, are going straight to voice mail, ringing unanswered or going to a pornographic hot line.

The latest Social and Economic Survey published by the Planning Institute of Jamaica, has revealed that 263 persons turned up at accidents and emergency units at public hospitals last year for the treatment of injuries received while they attempted suicide.

That does not include those who visited the Kingston Public Hospital with similar suicide-related injuries, as the data was not available for that institution. Information on the number of suicides in the island last year was not available up to last week.

The hot lines were established by the Government to provide counselling and support for those who may be considering suicide but that professional lifeline has been cut in recent months.

A common complaint from persons who attempted suicide was the inability to get help when they were at their lowest points.

One woman who recently contemplated suicide, told The Sunday Gleaner that she called the number listed as Jamaica's Suicide Prevention Hot line at 888-429-KARE to get help, but after six tires, she did not get a response.

"I Googled every number I could find for a suicide hot line in Jamaica and called every one of them, not one person picked up the phone," said the woman whose name is being withheld.

She said, in desperation, she decided to try calling a hot line in the United States, and got through on the first attempt. After being put on hold for 30 seconds she was connected to a woman who gave her the help she needed.

Minister of Health Christopher Tufton has accepted that there is the need for a 24-hour hot line dedicated to suicide and said his ministry is taking steps to establish one while utilising what is now available.

"There are four numbers that are used - one in each health region - for persons who are seeking help for mental health issues. These lines are manned by an operator in designated hospitals and persons who call should be directed to a mental health practitioner on duty, based on a list that operator is given," Tufton told The Sunday Gleaner.

"Having said that, I am not comfortable with this arrangement as sometimes the lines go unanswered, due to other matters that these operators may be tending to.

According to Tufton he has instructed the Mental Health Unit in the health ministry to work with the regions, and or, a NGO, to establish one, or more, dedicated line that focuses exclusively on mental health concerns.

"They are to get back to me in a month. I have also given instructions to the Mental Health Unit, to establish more direct communication, and make those available even if it means partnering with NGOs. They are looking at that and they are to get back to me on it," added Tufton as he pointed to the four numbers established in each region and the crisis call hot line in the Southern Health Authority, 876-325-2034 which has reportedly been accepting calls 24 hours each day.

The Mental Health Unit later pointed our news team to its toll-free number: 1-800-ONE-LOVE (633-5683) but calls to that number reached a pornographic recording.

For suicidologist and founder of Choose Life International, Dr Donovan Thomas, it is unfortunate that persons contemplating and seeking help are having a hard time in doing so.

"I was off the island, my phone was roaming and I was still getting calls from Jamaica, We take calls at any hours of the night. At 2 a.m. you have persons wanting to kill themselves, and my wife and I have to be on the phone as we are really committed to helping people live," said Thomas.

He added that in order to be able to help more persons, he has been trying to get a toll free number to set up a hot line of his own, because persons who call him seeking help most times do not have service on their phone to even stay on the line to get the help they need.

"We wouldn't have to pay to call clients and they wouldn't have to pay to call us, that's the main thing and if we get a system that is roaming, if one person is engaged then another person can pick up the call.

"September 10 is World Suicide Prevention Day, so it would be nice if we can work towards getting the hot line in place for that for day. The last company told us they did not have any space for it (toll free numbers), but any help we can get with that, we would appreciate it because there are multiple persons out there who are hurting to the point where they want to kill themselves," said Thomas.

 Numbers that are now doubling as suicide hot lines:

Southern Regional Health Authority : 876-325-2034 - Mental Health team

Southeast Regional Health Authority: 876-928-1381-9 Bellevue Hospital

Northeast Regional Health Authority: 876-972-2272 - St Ann's Bay Hospital

Western Regional Health Authority 876-952-5100-9 Cornwall Regional Hospital