Arkansans for whom holiday stress and winter blues turn to more serious symptoms of depression have somewhere to turn as a result of legislation passed in 2017 that created a state-funded suicide prevention call center run by the Arkansas Department of Health.
Tyler West, who works with the American Foundation of Suicide Prevention on both a state and national level, says the strategy is unique.
"We are the only state, the first and only state in the country that has a law that mandates a national suicide prevention hotline call center in the state. Prior to the legislature mandating that, if someone in Arkansas called that lifeline, more than likely they would be routed to a call center in Dallas or Louisiana, you know, outside of the state. And that's helpful," West said. "But if I'm going through a tough time and I dial that number to get help and I get routed to Nashville, whoever I'm talking to in Nashville is not familiar with the resources available here in Arkansas. So we felt like with the suicides continuing to rise in the state, the number of people who are struggling with thoughts of suicide we felt like that this was vital to have a call center in state and dedicate some state funds for this."
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Arkansas has the ninth highest rate of death by suicide in the nation. As a result of the state law, anyone with an Arkansas area code who calls the national hotline number of 1-800-273-8255 gets directed to Arkansas Department of Health call center staff, who are more familiar with Arkansas and its resources. Mandy Thomas, who oversees the hotline for the agency, says they get more calls during the winter season.
"We deal with all kinds of different types of calls. Around the holidays, it would be loneliness that would be the number one without the friends or family. And then it would go down to the financial burden that holidays may cause."
Dr. Amy Grooms, a psychiatrist with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences says the holidays can exacerbate symptoms already present due to seasonal affective disorder.
She says, "Seasonal affective disorder is a type of depression that is really associated with the change in seasons, so going from the spring and summer to the darker months of fall and winter. Most folks start to experience those symptoms starting in the fall."
The stress triggered by a decrease in the number of daylight hours can become amplified by the holidays.
"The holidays are unique," Grooms says. "They're a time when our financial stressors are at an increase, some of our relationship stressors can be heightened. It's kind of primed for a time where stress in the extreme may spill over into some of those more clinical depressive symptoms."
Grooms recommends light therapy, regular exercise routines and finding ways to connect with others in the community as strategies for coping. She also cautions against using alcohol as stress relief because it can heighten the symptoms of depression if used regularly.
Mandy Thomas says the number of Arkansans making use of the state's call center has increased over the past two years.
Thomas says, "Even in our rural areas in the state, we're getting that message out that someone is out there and we'll listen and find resources and we'll make sure that you’re safe and okay."
The confidential call center is available 24/7, including holidays. The hotline also has a text option available by texting TALK to 741741.