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Unpaid Bill Has Suicide-Prevention Hotline at Risk of Shutdown

With no major grant to support the suicide hotline, H. Reese Butler is struggling to raise $67,000 to pay the phone bill.
With no major grant to support the suicide hotline, H. Reese Butler is struggling to raise $67,000 to pay the phone bill. (By Melina Mara -- The Washington Post)
By Jacqueline L. Salmon
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 18, 2006

The country's largest crisis hotline is in crisis itself.

The founder of 1-800-SUICIDE is accusing the federal government of creating a rival hotline to run him out of business and get access to confidential data on people. Because of the competition, H. Reese Butler says in Web postings, his hotline is running out of cash and expects to go out of business next week unless it comes up with a way to pay $67,000 of its $177,000 in past-due phone bills.

Federal officials and mental-health agencies say Butler's claims are false and could endanger the lives of mentally fragile individuals by frightening them away from both toll-free hotlines -- the only two national suicide-prevention lines. Together they handle 40,000 phone calls a month, most of which go to 1-800-SUICIDE.

"It's already hard enough for people to reach out," said Timothy Jansen, executive director of Community Crisis Services in Prince George's County. "If they think that just by picking up the phone that Big Brother is out to get them, they're not going to do it as easily."

More than 200 crisis centers across the country depend on the two hotlines to connect them to people struggling with emotional and mental trauma and in need of immediate help. The toll-free hotlines -- 1-800-SUICIDE and 1-800-273-TALK -- do not take calls but route them to crisis centers in the callers' home towns.

Butler has been credited with being the first to link crisis centers with a national referral line.

Before 1-800-SUICIDE, people in crisis had to find counseling centers on their own and, if the crisis lines at one center were closed or busy, to seek out other ones.

With 1-800-SUICIDE and 1-800-273-TALK, software automatically checks the caller's area code and routes the call to the nearest center. If one center is closed or busy, the hotline rolls the caller over to another. For callers, the process is invisible.

Suicide-prevention specialists say the service is invaluable.

"When people call, they need to be able to get a human voice, not a computerized 'Our hours are closed' kind of thing," said Patricia Tedford, executive director of CONTACT Delaware Inc., a crisis center.

For Butler, the effort has been a personal crusade. His wife, Kristin, committed suicide in 1998 at age 28 after their daughter was stillborn, and he founded the Kristin Brooks Hope Center and set up the hotline.

To pay for it, he raised $400,000 by selling his house and using the cash from his wife's life insurance and a malpractice settlement. After moving from San Francisco to the Washington area in 2000, he attracted the attention of Congress. It added funding to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration's budget for suicide prevention, and the Kristin Brooks Hope Center received a three-year subcontract from the American Society of Suicidology to fund the hotline.

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