On Guam, crisis calls jump from 27 a month to 530

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HAGÅTÑA (The Guam Daily Post) — The number of calls to the Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center crisis hotline jumped to an average of 530 a month from March to August, from what was a monthly range of 25 to 30 prior to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The increased call volume is an average of 18 crisis calls a day or 132 a week, a steep increase from about one a day prior to the coronavirus crisis.

The Guam Behavioral Health and Wellness Center released that data. GBHWC is a government of Guam agency that provides behavioral health services, including treatment, to adults and children.

Behavioral Health Director Therese Arriola said from March 15 to Aug. 31, the center's crisis hotline received a total of 2,945 calls.

"A 2,000% increase," she told The Guam Daily Post.

Help is a phone call away for anyone feeling anxious, stressed or overwhelmed and in need of someone to talk to, health professionals said. The crisis hotline can be reached at 671-647-8833 or 671-647-8834 and calls will be taken any time of the day.

Seeking someone to talk to or asking for help is encouraged, according to Dr. Kristianna Whitman, project director of GBHWC's Focus on Life and Youth Suicide Prevention Grant.

More awareness

Arriola said GBHWC received federal Covid mental health emergency funding grants, portions of which were used to do public outreach including on social media.

"And that's probably the reason why more and more people are starting to call, which is always a good thing. The first thing they need to know is where to call and so we are inundated with callers, but that's a good thing because that's what we're here to do," Arriola said on Friday, during a Zoom conference with senators and a group of student interns interested in public policy.

The stigma of getting help is also "reducing," she said, so more people call the crisis hotline.

A pandemic lends itself to heightened behavioral response, health professionals said. It's not just the crisis hotline that has seen a spike.

Suicide deaths also increased in the past three months.

About every six days in June, July and August, someone died by suicide, according to the Guam Office of the Chief Medical Examiner. There were 15 suicides deaths, or five in each of those three months.

Solutions proposed

This year's group of students in the Public Policy Institute's internship program, under Guam Legislature Speaker Tina Muña Barnes' office, focused on the need to seek more funding for GBHWC's crisis hotline call center.

The students include Aila Rodriguez of Brown University, Sojung An of Harvest Christian Academy, and Mark Wang, Chelsea Luo and Seungho Kang of St. John’s School. Kang's presentation was on storm drains.

The students drafted legislation seeking to appropriate $375,000 from the Healthy Futures Fund to GBHWC to initiate a "Mobile Crisis Response Team."

They proposed the hiring of at least 11 full-time employees to ensure there's 24-hour manpower for the crisis hotline.

Currently, social workers, counselors, nurses, care coordinators, key family coordinators and peer specialists receive calls to the crisis hotline, but they also have their other primary duties.

Arriola and the students said there's no full-time workers dedicated to only working the crisis hotline.

"Because the unit has become more and more busy, it is not conducive to answering the proper crisis hotline, so what I have done is I redirected resources so that we actually have a crisis hotline team," Arriola said.

Post-Covid, the center is weighing hiring employees dedicated to manning the crisis hotline, she said.

Arriola thanked the students for helping to raise awareness about the crisis hotline.

Barnes and Sens. Régine Biscoe Lee and Wil Castro also lauded the students for not only bringing the issue of mental health to the forefront but more importantly proposing concrete solutions.

No help from national hotline

In the last six months of 2019, there were 167 Guam residents who called the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and "zero percent of the 167 callers received help," the students said.

They couldn't be redirected to Guam because the island doesn't have an established national suicide prevention lifeline, the students said.

Arriola said GBHWC applied to the National Crisis Lifeline, and they're now on the last stage of a three-stage process.

"We are confident that it's going to happen," Arriola said.

When she became the director of GBHWC, she said this was one of her priorities so that everyone who calls the national hotline can get help.

Arriola said GBHWC will build up infrastructure of its crisis unit that will include the general crisis hotline number, the local suicide prevention number and the Mobile Crisis Response Team with dedicated staff.

If the student-proposed bill becomes law, the Mobile Crisis Response Team under GBHWC would work collaboratively with the Guam Crisis Hotline for 24 hours a day, seven days a week, to respond to crisis calls.

If a crisis hotline employee at any point decides the caller needs further in-person support, the Mobile Crisis Response Team would be notified to go directly to the caller in order to help resolve the crisis, according to the draft bill.

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