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Suicide call centers ‘severely underfunded,’ Katko bill would increase funding

Tom Magnarelli
WRVO Public Media
Rep. John Katko at Contact Community Services.

Rep. John Katko (R-Camillus) has introduced legislation that would increase funding for local suicide crisis call centers. It's part of an effort to address the issues and end the stigma of suicide and mental health. 

Last year, Contact Community Services in East Syracuse responded to more than 40,000 calls on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and local hotline. Stefanie Grandjean with Contact described one call she took from a parent and her college-age son, who was going through academic stress, a relationship ending and a mental health diagnosis. He came dangerously close to a suicide attempt.

“He described his experience of feeling in a fog and suddenly waking up, realizing where he was, and knowing he needed help,” Grandjean said.

Cheryl Giarrusso, director of Crisis Intervention Services at Contact, said there was a huge spike in their call volume after the suicides of fashion designer Kate Spade and celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain in 2018.

“We couldn’t manage, nor could any other center in the country, manage the spike in call volume," Giarrusso said. "It was incredible and it has not abated, it continues. I think people became aware and they began using the service and shared that information. So, the call volume is increasing dramatically, annually.” 

If the legislation, introduced by Katko, were passed, Giarrusso said they could staff their call lines more robustly. She said Contact and other call centers across the country are severely underfunded. Katko’s legislation would increase funding to the Suicide Prevention Lifeline from $12 million to $50 million with 80 percent going to the call centers.

Katko said mental health needs to be treated as seriously as the heroin epidemic. Like heroin, suicides in the U.S. claim five lives every hour. 

"The whole mental health narrative is underrepresented in our national dialogue," Katko said. "So, anywhere I can grab dollars and we can get dollars to the front lines like this, we're going to do it."

Onondaga County has also been awarded $4 million in federal funding to expand mental health services and support high-risk youth, with programs to help them transition into adulthood.

Tom Magnarelli is a reporter covering the central New York and Syracuse area. He joined WRVO as a freelance reporter in 2012 while a student at Syracuse University and was hired full time in 2015. He has reported extensively on politics, education, arts and culture and other issues around central New York.