Apparent suicides renew concern for end of Minnesota hotline

Published 8:17 pm Friday, June 8, 2018

MINNEAPOLIS — The apparent suicide by celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain Friday, just days after fashion designer Kate Spade’s, is renewing attention to Minnesota’s cash-starved suicide hotline, which is expected to shut down at the end of the month.

Funding for Crisis Connections, Minnesota’s half-century-old hotline, was a casualty of budget disputes between Gov. Mark Dayton and Republican lawmakers, leading to the governor’s veto. The timing couldn’t be worse, as statewide suicide rates have been rising.

Public health officials agree that early intervention, including a voice on the other end of the phone line, drastically reduces the chance a person will die by suicide.

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“Treatment works, and suicide is preventable,” said Melissa Heinen, a suicide epidemiologist with the Minnesota Department of Health.

Heinen points to the hundreds of calls hotlines like Crisis Connect receive each year compared to the actual number of people who die by suicide. “It must be effective. We’re saving hundreds of lives every day,” she said.

Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline are routed to Crisis Connection, which is operated by Canvas Health, a nonprofit based in the Twin Cities area. Following the planned closure, callers will reach out-of-state counselors who might not be as familiar with Minnesota and local services, said Canvas Health CEO Matt Eastwood.

Crisis Connections was spared shutdown last year when the Minnesota Department of Health propped up the center with a last-minute cash infusion. The nearly $1 million legislative proposal to fund the call center this year was seven lines in a 990-page document that became bogged down in political gamesmanship between Republicans who control the Legislature and Dayton, a Democrat.

“We got caught up like a lot of other valuable proposals and programs that also didn’t get funded,” Eastwood said.

Neither the Department of Health nor the Department of Human Services have any plans at present to fund the hotline, spokesmen said.

The suburban Twin Cities nonprofit was on pace this year to take more than 55,000 calls per year and linked callers to local mental health professionals and emergency first-responders.

Sue Abderholden, director of the Minnesota chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, said it’s a loss for the community. She said Minnesotans still have many options, including 24-hour county crisis hotlines and services in the Twin Cities allowing people to get help by dialing “(asterisk)(asterisk)crisis” on their cell phones or by texting 741741.

State officials don’t anticipate any interruptions during the transition.

Recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention showed statewide suicide rates have been increasing. Between 1999 and 2016, Minnesota’s suicide rate rose 40.6 percent, though the overall suicide rate remains much lower than in other states.

The study confirms what the Minnesota Department of Health has observed in recent years. In 2016, Minnesota’s health department noted 745 suicides, up from 606 in 2010.

State health officials have increased efforts to identify at-risk communities to help reduce suicides, especially in growing rural cases and in men ages 35 to 49, who account for the highest share of suicide deaths in the state.

“If they are feeling the thoughts themselves, they need to know they can get better and tomorrow will be another day. The sun will still come up, and they should reach out and get the help that they need,” Abderholden said. “It’s not a sign of weakness.”

The 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number is 1-800-273-TALK (8255).