A new suicide prevention hotline based in the North Bay is ready for callers.
The 24-hour, seven days a week phone lines are staffed by volunteers who work out of San Rafael at the Family Service Agency of Marin, part of the new North Bay Suicide Prevention Project.
Trained staff will be familiar with the names and phone numbers of Sonoma County services, and organizers hope local residents will step up to volunteer. The hotline is among about 10 accredited crisis hotlines in the country, the primary one being national, said Michael Kennedy, Sonoma County's director of behavioral health services.
"Calls in the past would go to Contra Costa (County). They'd talk to people feeling suicidal, but what we found was there was no connection back to our county, no follow up," said Kennedy.
The goal of the new hotline is to provide people with resources in their communities, said Linda Allen, program director of the Family Service Agency of Marin's suicide prevention and community counseling program.
The hotline is not only for people experiencing depression or contemplating suicide but also their loved ones.
"When people are in crisis they need to connect with other human beings," Allen said. "A lot of people who call us don't have other resources.
A Sonoma County Suicide Prevention Committee is key to the project. Made up of about 20 people representing veterans, teens, the Latino community and others, the committee will make sure the right services are on the list.
From 2007 to 2009, Sonoma County's rates of suicide were at least 30 percent higher than the state average, according to state data.
The issue cuts close for Sonoma County Supervisor Shirlee Zane, whose husband Peter Kingston took his own life in 2011.
"People need to be encouraged to talk," said Zane.
Zane has been outspoken about the need to diminish the stigma surrounding suicide and depression, which she believes prevents people from addressing the issue.
A lot of attention is paid to teen depression, but not enough to the bulk of those who take their own lives: older white men.
"There is a public health issue. Who is committing suicide? It is my husband's demographic," Zane said.
In 2011, 69 people committed suicide. About 80 percent were white men, including 22 men who were 50 and older, according to Sonoma County coroner's office data.
The Marin agency has been running a crisis phone line for about 40 years. It fields about 12,000 calls each year on a range of matters, project staff said.
They expect the number of calls to increase.
The new hotline is the first local phone number solely dedicated to suicide prevention, Allen said. The county also has a 24-hour psychiatric emergency services hotline.
The North Bay Suicide Prevention Project is funded through the Mental Health Services Act, which was adopted in 2004. The act increased the state income tax by 1 percent for people making $1 million or more.
The project is expected to cost about $1.2 million over the next three years.
The hotline will serve not only Marin and Sonoma counties but eventually Napa, Lake, Mendocino and Solano counties.
Since January the national lifeline forwarded North Bay calls to the Marin center.