Courtesy of Cornell Health

Mental health services in Ithaca, such as the Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service hotline, respond to increased demand for services due to COVID-19.

April 17, 2020

Ithaca Crisis Hotline Fields Surge of New Callers

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Content warning: mental illness, suicide, abuse

The Suicide Prevention and Crisis Service hotline has experienced increased demand due to COVID-19 related stresses, but is well prepared to offer remote services.

“Offering support on the phone is something we are experts at. We have been doing it for [over] 50 years,” said Michaela Corazon, director of Crisisline, a 24-hour, Ithaca-based hotline.

But while providing services by phone is not new for the organization’s counselors, widespread stress and isolation caused by COVID-19 has triggered a wave of new callers.

According to Corazon, social distancing has exacerbated the mental and physical health risks of many callers, especially those now living with abusive partners and family members.

“Yesterday, we had a call from a woman with an abusive spouse, and then a call from someone with an abusive grown son. We have elder abuse happening,” Corazon said. “They feel that they can’t get them [the abusers] out of the house, because it’s the time of COVID-19. Where are they going to send them?”

Some callers also expressed concerns about the prospect of moving back to an unsafe home environment.

“We had a student who called, they are a gender fluid person and has a family who hates them,” Corazon said. “Going to school was their support, and now they feel really desperate and scared.”

While the service is based in Ithaca, it receives calls from over ten upstate New York counties.

Crisisline has also started taking overflow calls from other services, such as a hotline set up by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-N.Y.) to cope with a surge in demand for mental health services,

But even for those not experiencing immediate risks to their physical safety, isolation has disrupted the typical coping mechanisms that many people use to handle stress.

According to Corazon, fear and isolation have exacerbated the mental health issues of many people who are frequent callers to the Crisisline. While conditions have changed, many of the core strategies of the crisis line have remained constant — listening, empathy and safety planning.

“We listen. [We say], ‘so you are having thoughts of suicide, tell me about that?’ We listen until they get to a place where they are feeling relief that someone is listening to them,” said Corazon.

The eventual goal of a Crisisline counselor who is on the phone with someone thinking about suicide is to arrive at a short term safety plan. Safety plans often involve discussion of who someone at risk will call for support, including friends, clinicians and the Crisisline itself.

“We come up with safety plans. [We say] can you stay safe from suicide for the next 24 hours? What can you do?,” Corazon said.

According to Corazon, the same approach, focused on connection, understanding and assistance, is used with all callers, even those that are not expressing suicidal thoughts.

While the hotline is open to calls, some services that they work with have been challenged by social distancing guidelines. The mobile outreach team who the Crisisline works with is now assessing people via phone rather than out in the field.

Due to COVID-19, many callers are even more worried than they used to be about the prospect of hospitalization if they are at serious risk to themselves.

“If someone is going to take their life imminently, we try to get emergency services to take them to the hospital,”said Corazon. “The hospital is a difficult place to go for many people, because they are afraid of contagion, even though the hospital is doing everything it can to protect people from contagion.”

Due to the cost of the voice over internet protocol that they are using to work remotely, only eight people are currently working as crisis line counselors, and the volunteers are taking a break.

The counselors are receiving support, as well as providing it. Crisisline management bought laptops for counselors who could not afford them. Corazon calls counselors before every shift to check-in, and has also arranged for an outside clinician to support the counselors.

“We are having a local clinician do support groups on Zoom for our counselors, once, sometimes twice a month,”  said Corazon. “I can step out of it and have someone who is a clinician facilitate support, and that way they don’t have to deal with me, their supervisor.”

Students may consult with counselors from Counseling & Psychological Services (CAPS) by calling 607-255-5155. Employees may call the Faculty Staff Assistance Program (FSAP) at 607-255-2673. An Ithaca-based Crisisline is available at 607-272-1616. To access the National Crisis Text line, Text HELLO to 741741 any time. For additional resources, visit