Second suicide linked to confusion over helpline number

Call center operator
Call center operator Photo: DmitryPoch/DepositPhotos

For the second time in a few months someone tried in vain to reach the suicide prevention hotline in the Netherlands, and took his own life a short time afterwards. The man called 113, thinking that this is the helpline's number given that it is called 113 Zelfmoordpreventie. The actual number is 0900 0113.

At the end of July, a 61-year-old man from Beverwijk called 113, and variations thereof, four times in an attempt to reach the suicide prevention helpline, the Volkskrant reports. Two days later, he took his own life. At the end of September, the relatives of a 26-year-old woman from Winschoten said that she had called 113 three times in the hours prior to her suicide. According to her parents, an aid worker gave them the number 113.

113 Zelfmoordpreventie called the two incidents "intensely sad". The foundation "occasionally" hears from help seekers that they first called 113 before finding the correct number, a spokesperson said to the Volkskrant. But until a few weeks ago, the foundation wasn't aware of people not being able to find the correct number before their suicide. According to the spokesperson, 113 Zelfmoordpreventie consistently communicates the right number in all media and to all professionals they work with. 

The Volkskrant spoke to a number of aid organizations and found that many did not know that 113 wasn't the number for the suicide prevention helpline. Elnathan Prinsen, chairman of the Dutch association of psychiatry NVvP, told the newspaper that many psychiatrists do not know the correct number. "I also had to look it up myself." The NVvP has now communicated the correct number to its members. Mental health institutions Accare and Inter-Psy told the newspaper the same thing.

Whether being able to reach the helpline would have prevented these two suicides, is impossible to say. But research shows that telephone helplines can play an important role in preventing suicide, former professor of psychology Rene Diekstra said to the newspaper. He calls for an investigation into how often people took their own lives after failing to reach the helpline. "That won't be pleasant, but it would make the extent of the problem clear."

Diekstra called it incomprehensible that the Ministry of Public Health, Welfare and Sports and 133 Zelfmoordpreventie haven't intervened already. "Nothing to the detriment of 113, that organization does an excellent job. But I would expect that after the first incident there would at least be an emergency debate, or an advertising campaign in all national newspapers with the right number. This is about life and death."

On Thursday suicide prevention will be discussed in the Tweede Kamer, the lower house of Dutch parliament. State Secretary Paul Blokhuis of Public Health called the suicides of the Beverwijk man and Winschoten woman "terrible", according to the newspaper. "I am very motivated to ensure that people with suicidal thoughts can get help and support as quickly and easily as possible", he said.

On Wednesday Blokhuis announced that he wants to change the helpline number to 113, as 113 Zelfmoordpreventie requested multiple times in the past. But when this will happen, is not clear. In the meantime, providers must ensure that anyone who calls 113 hears a recording that gives them the correct number. This must be up and running within two weeks. 

Those in the Netherlands who are suffering from depression or contemplating suicide may call counselors at Luisterlijn, 0900-0767 (5 ct./min.), or call their volunteers at a local number. 113 Zelfmoordpreventie is also available 24/7 at number 0900-0113. A list of suicide crisis hotlines outside the Netherlands is available on Wikipedia.