WASHINGTON – At crisis hotlines in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, operators are standing by — but so far a rush of sniper-inspired calls has not come.
While citizens anxious over the shootings have been calling in, it is nothing like the large numbers of calls to police tip lines. In fact, the hotlines are not getting much more business than usual, health officials said.
“Just by the number of times the phones have rung, you know that there has been an increase, but it’s not a big one,” said Neil Hochman, a spokesman for the Montgomery County Mental Health Association. “Volunteers are busier than usual, but not overwhelmed.”
The Montgomery County Crisis Center — the main hotline number officials are giving out — has only seen a 25 percent increase from its average of about 125 calls per day, said Mary Anderson, a county public information officer.
The increase, and the expectation of more calls to come, pushed the center to add a few therapists to its usual staff of six or eight licensed mental health therapists per shift. Therapists from Baltimore County arrived Friday and Prince George’s County loaned counselors Thursday and planned to do so again this weekend, Anderson said.
“Our call volume went down here so we’re sending some volunteers to them,” said Theresa Grant, assistant director of the Prince George’s Family Services Department. She said the county wanted to send “help where it is needed.”
The staff of around 10 mental health counselors at the Prince George’s County hotline has been fielding about 50 calls a day this week, said Carolyn Billingsley, director of the county’s Mental Health Authority Division.
Callers to both counties are expressing concern over children and fear about daily activities. Billingsley said one or two Spanish callers have complained they were not getting enough information from Spanish news sources.
But, most of all, callers just want to someone to talk to in order to feel better, Hochman said.
“In times likes these, there is heightened anxiety and stress,” he said. “And until there are more answers than questions, all individuals need to have an outlet. Some are fortunate to have good families and friends and others need support of a hotline.”
Beyond taking calls from the public, the Montgomery County Crisis Center has also counseled family members of two victims in its Victim Assistance and Sexual Assault Program, which offers grief counseling and a victim compensation fund.
The crisis center is separate from the Montgomery County Hotline, which operates around the clock with volunteer mental health counselors offering supportive listening. Calls to the Montgomery Hotline have not significantly increased, but about 65 percent of those who do call have voiced concerns over the shootings, officials said.
“Callers are asking questions like, `How should I handle this? How should I talk to my kids? Should I be happy or sad? How should I react?'” said Sharon Friedman, the executive director of the Montgomery County Mental Health Association.
The association also has a “professional crisis response database,” a group of 250 mental health volunteers that was called to duty last week. Friedman said the group, trained for crisis response and grief counseling, is ready to provide extra counseling at the county’s crisis center or county schools.
While mental health professionals are standing by and waiting to help, they have a piece of advice that might ease the stress caused by the sniper shooter.
“To the degree which you are comfortable going about your daily affairs, you should,” Friedman said. “And joy and happiness are part of your daily routine.”