The outcome wasn’t certain, but in the 60 minutes that seemed to stretch for much longer between 1 and 2 a.m. Wednesday, while the swing states deciding our next president flipped between red and blue, the phone at the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline rang 660 times.
People were scared – for their rights, for their safety, for their children.
They were thinking about taking their lives.
It was an unprecedented volume for that hour on a Wednesday – two and a half times the average – which is perhaps unsurprising when you consider the extreme levels of anxiety Americans feel during election cycles. They watch, overwhelmed, as the nation’s game plan changes overnight. They seek reassurance.
But this cycle, and this candidate, stoked fearful calls unmatched in the hotline’s history.
“We didn’t see numbers like this in 2008 or 2012,” Lifeline director John Draper told The Washington Post. “This was an extraordinary year by any stretch of the imagination.”
And the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline wasn’t the only crisis center to experience an influx.
As Tuesday night faded into Wednesday, Steve Mendelsohn, deputy executive director of The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hotline for LBGTQ youth, decided to sleep instead of wait out the results. He knew he’d need to get to the office early the next morning, he told The Post, and that he’d need to rally extra help to man the phones. The calls were already flooding in.
By the time Wednesday morning arrived, Hillary Clinton had called to congratulate Donald Trump and the billionaire businessman – now president-elect – had taken the stage in New York with his family and running mate Mike Pence to humbly accept America’s decision. Hours later, Clinton formally conceded, telling little girls everywhere to keep cracking away at the “highest and hardest glass ceiling.”
Still, the calls kept coming.
Between 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. Wednesday, their average intake had more than doubled, Mendelsohn said. Almost everyone was calling about the election.
“We have made so much progress over the past few years, and there’s a fear that we’re going to backwards and LGBTQ people are going to lose their rights,” Mendelsohn told TIME. “Young people are worried about their futures.”
The last time the Trevor Project saw a surge like this, Mendelsohn said, was after the massacre in Orlando at the Pulse nightclub.
At the Crisis Text Line, pleas for help more than doubled in the 24 hours since Donald Trump’s vision for making American great again emerged victorious. Some 2,000 people contacted the text hotline, with the words “election” and “scared” as the most commonly typed. The latter was most often associated with “LGBTQ.”
More than five percent of texters mentioned anxieties about family disagreements over the election, a fear likely heightened by the looming holiday season.
And at Trans Lifeline, a hotline launched just two years ago for transgender people and staffed by other trans people, the phones started ringing louder around 10 p.m. Ninety-seven calls were answered Tuesday night, and by early Wednesday evening the hotline had received more than 500 calls. At times, they had more than they could handle.
“Trans people face very real harassment and discrimination, and I think a lot of people had very much hoped it would get better,” Greta Martela, co-founder and executive director of Trans Lifeline, told The Post. “It’s very hard to believe it will get better in the next four years, which is a very long time to wait.”
After same-sex marriage was legalized across the country, the national discourse shifted to the rights of people who identify as transgender. The Obama administration became a champion of the community in his final year in office, issuing “guidance” to schools nationwide to allow transgender students use of bathrooms and locker rooms conforming to their gender identity, rather than their biological sex.
The guidance, seen as an affront to privacy rights and executive overreach by critics. was in part a response to the passage of a law in North Carolina that forced citizens to use the bathroom that corresponded with their biological sex – the one on their birth certificate – despite their gender identity.
That outcry was the last time Trans Lifelife saw a heavy uptick in call volume – and even then it peaked at just 251.
“I just think it’s getting hard for people to keep having hope,” Martela told The Post. “We have a lot of work to do in this country. And it’s stalled for the next four years, and that’s pretty bad.”
Trump has said in the past that he believes transgender people should be able to use the bathroom of their choice, but many in the party he now leads disagree, and there remains a fear that if confirmed, his Supreme Court justice nominees could work to strip away protections for LGBTQ people.
Among the triggers affecting callers was the issue of sexual assault, a topic thrust into the election discourse when a lewd 2005 tape recording of Trump, who had a reputation for insulting women and their looks, was published by The Post in October. In it, the president-elect can be heard bragging about kissing and groping women without their permission because of he is a celebrity.
“And when you’re a star, they let you do it,” Trump says. “You can do anything.”
“Grab them by the p–,” he continues. “You can do anything.”
After the tape was made public, dozens of women came forward, alleging that Trump had touched or kissed them without permission, brazenly walked in on them while half-nude in Miss U.S.A. dressing rooms or spoke crudely to them about their bodies.
“Sexual aggressiveness with women by an elected official – if people have that experience in their own life, that’s upsetting,” Michael Reading, director of crisis services at a Seattle-area 24-hour hotline, told the Seattle Times.
In a BuzzFeed News story about how sexual assault survivors were reacting to Trump’s election, one California woman named Lauren said this: “Waking up to a Trump victory today, I have not felt this violated, unvalued, or disrespected since the day of my assault.”
It’s not uncommon for a large life event, like the election of a new national leader, to force those who have had traumatic experiences to relive them all at once, said Draper, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline director. The anxieties build – about relationships, family, finances – and become overwhelming.
“They might start talking about the election,” Draper said of hotline users, “but by the end of the call they’re talking about their lives.”
To cope, Draper and the Crisis Text Line offered the following suggestions:
– Step away from the news and limit exposure to a small chunk of time each day.
– Find solace with a community of people that share your fears, where you can talk openly about why you’re afraid.
– Try to avoid confrontational conversations that might heighten your anxiety, including debates with family and friends who may have voted differently from you – at least for now.
– Find a routine, exercise, distract your mind.
– Channel your feelings of unrest into a cause or act you find fulfilling.
“No matter what would have happened with the election results, a large group of people would have been upset,” Draper said. “We’re trying to get the word out that there are things that can people can do to cope.
“Even if they are experiencing a crisis, they should know that these things end.”
(c) 2016, The Washington Post · Katie Mettler