May is Mental Health Awareness month, but Mental Health America of Greenville County is there every day of the year, providing advocacy, awareness and a listening ear for people in crisis and those trying to avoid one.
Founded in 1955, MHAGC is affiliated with the state and national organizations that share its name. Since December 2019, it has served as the call center for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for the entire state. Before the S.C. Department of Mental Health (SCDMH) received a grant to expand Lifeline response, only 17% of calls from South Carolina were answered in-state, with the rest routed to other states, said Susan Smyre Haire, director of community engagement and development.
“They could still provide nonjudgmental support and talk the caller through a crisis, but they might not be aware of emergency resources available here,” Haire said. “For example, SCDMH has a crisis mobilization program allowing two mental health professionals to go with law enforcement to the scene during a behavioral health crisis, but a Lifeline responder in Texas wouldn’t know that.”
Call volume increased by about 50% in the first quarter of 2020 after MHAGC began taking calls from all South Carolina area codes. To understand how the coronavirus affected call volume, the organization compared data from February 1 to April 29 for 2019 and 2020. Hotline calls from across the state increased from 2,934 in 2019 to 3,885 in 2020, a difference of 951, a 32.4 percent increase.
“We’re hearing every day from people who are struggling with uncertainty about jobs, homeschooling, the future and what it holds,” Haire said.
She credited the staff and volunteers for their courageous response.
“Coronavirus has been difficult for us. Our current phone system is 14 years old and requires volunteers and staff to answer calls from our call center, so there is risk, but we take as many precautions as we can,” she said.
Before the virus struck, the purchase of a new phone system was planned, to be partially paid for with grants. The agency planned on utilizing general funds to cover the remaining amount. However, doing so prevents the nonprofit from designating funds for the staffing necessary to respond to all hotline calls and requests for education presentations. Haire said South Carolina is one of the few states where there is no local, county or state funding to support crisis hotlines. Previously, there were four Lifeline centers around the state.
“Due to lack of funding, we’re the only one left,” she said. “Despite our incredible staff, AmeriCorps programs and our volunteers, we still miss calls, and we hate that. One missed call is one call too many. We would also like to be able to provide more preventive support through increased education efforts to help people cope with stressors before they are in a crisis situation.”
Community support — both volunteer hours and funding — is needed more than ever, Haire said, as the agency depends on membership, community partners, fundraising and grants. Memberships, which start at $50, fund a range of programs, including housing services and suicide prevention education. Volunteers make a difference in the lives of others while gaining skills that are useful both in professional fields and everyday life.
“We stretch every dollar to ensure we are helping to meet the need,” Haire said. “We want to be there for everyone in our community.”
In March, The Community Foundation of Greenville made a capacity-building grant of $9,000 to be used for new desktop computers, then quickly approved a reallocation of funds to provide a better solution for current needs.
“The Community Foundation has been an incredible partner,” Haire said. “Substituting laptops allowed our staff members to respond to agency needs remotely, ensuring efficiency and safety.”
Bob Morris, CFG president, said, “Isolation is a major contributor to relapse for family members with mental illness. It just makes sense to invest additional resources to connect clients with proven therapies.”