COLORADO, USA — As the pandemic continues to strain Colorado’s health and economy, Colorado Crisis Services has seen unprecedented demand and a record average number of disconnected calls before people can get help.
Coloradans also spend more time on hold and the average call lasts longer in 2020 than it did in 2017.
Raymond Vigil, an advocate for mental health awareness who has been coping with anxiety and chronic post-traumatic stress disorder for years, related to the trauma created by the “uncertainty” and “unexpected” nature of 2020.
“I fit with what’s been happening in the world today,” Vigil said. “...It’s definitely a daily battle for me. I have good days and bad days, but I definitely have more good days than bad.”
Vigil said sharing problems with a licensed counselor or peer professional on the crisis line provides invaluable aid.
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“One of the best things you can do for yourself is reach out and talk to someone,” Vigil said. “Someone is always willing to listen to you. You don’t have to ever feel like you’re alone in this.”
The average number of calls and texts into Colorado Crisis Services per year went up 55% from 2017 to 2020, according to a 9Wants to Know analysis of crisis line data from the Colorado Department of Human Services (CDHS). 9Wants to Know obtained the data through an open records request.
Services never crossed the 20,000 threshold before 2020. This year, it’s happened seven times and every month since May 2020. October 2020 set a record since 2017, with 24,821 texts and calls.
Bev Marquez, CEO of Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, said the surge is caused by the stressors associated with the pandemic, racial tension and the election. Remote learning has been especially burdensome to many Coloradans.
“We’ve never had a time where all of these variables came together to create an unheard of time," Marquez said. “And with unheard-of times come feelings that are catching us by surprise.”
Higher abandonment rate and longer wait times
Callers are on hold for more than twice the amount of time they were in 2017, according to the data analysis. That’s an average difference of waiting 36 seconds to be connected with a therapist in 2017, compared to more than a minute in 2020.
Marquez said people sometimes hang up because it took longer than expected to talk with someone, or they change their mind about getting help.
“We are having times that took too long than we are comfortable with,” Marquez said.
On average, people waited 1.5 minutes for help in October 2020.
“But when you’re in crisis, when you’re expecting a response that you would get when you call 911, then it feels like, ‘What the heck?!’” Marquez said.
The average abandonment rate in 2020 so far has been 15.2% across Colorado Crisis Services, which is worse than the typical ratio. According to Marquez, the industry standard for abandonment rate is 8%. It is calculated by dividing the number of disconnected calls by the total number of calls.
Colorado Crisis Services' abandonment rate increased 6.3% compared to 2019 and 8.7% to 2017.
Marquez said more calls and fewer people to answer them, which happens when staff call out sick, can lead to more disconnections.
“Spikes are more common,” she said. “And that average during spikes also seems to be common because the resource is having trouble keeping up with the demand.”
Marquez said counselors are assigned to check in with people that have been on-hold to see if they are safe to wait. If they are not, those counselors will start talking with that person.
“...My plea is knowing that the system is up,” Marquez said. “Our services are effective; because of the volume we may be a little more difficult to reach and we are still here 24/7.”
More people have hung up before they can get connected with a licensed therapist or counselor. On average, 329% more people are hanging up before they can get help from 2017 to 2020. There was an average of 645 abandoned calls in 2017 from January to October and an average of 2,766 lost calls so far in 2020.
Lindsay Sandoval, media manager with the Office of Behavioral Health within the Colorado Department of Human Services, said the increase could be attributed to an overall higher call volume. Also, people could get nervous and hang up, the call could drop or someone could misdial the hotline.
Marquez said Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners is trying to recruit more counselors and make training more efficient to be able to talk to more callers sooner. She said they added 60 employees in a year and now have 150 on staff.
The toll on the therapists
Richard Camp, a crisis specialist for Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners, is one of 150 mental health professionals on the other side of the phone as people call for help.
“It is difficult work listening to human suffering, and it easy to get burned out…..it is easy for that to find its way into you,” Camp said.
Camp said they develop coping mechanisms that make the work doable longterm. Above all else, Coloradans should reach out when things feel overwhelming.
“I want people to know we are here to provide them with the support,” Camp said. “As I tell my callers, don’t hesitate, don’t even think about it. Just call. Just call. Let’s see how we can support you, and we want to.”
The average call in 2020 lasted 49% longer than in 2017. A call to the Crisis Line lasted more than 11 minutes on average in 2017 and runs an average of 17 minutes in 2020.
24/7 mental health support for themselves or a loved one is available for anyone who calls 1-844-493-8255 or texts “TALK” to 38255. The website is: Colorado Crisis Services.
This story was done in partnership with COLab, the Colorado News Collaborative, for the "On Edge" project. If you’re struggling, help is available on Colorado’s crisis hotline. Call 1-844-493-TALK(8255).
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