Once it became clear that Donald Trump would be the nation’s next president, Madison, 17, sent a flurry of text messages to her friends seeking help. No responses.
It was after 1 a.m. Many of them, she figured, had gone to bed. So she dialed the Trans Lifeline, hoping that someone on the other end would be able to help her cope.
“I called because I’m transgender and Trump has the power to choose the Supreme Court justices who will help rule on trans rights, as well as reverse all the trans-friendly mandates Obama had given out,” she told me in an e-mail. “I felt like my life was over before it could start.”
She wasn’t able to get through, at least not right away, and she needed to talk to someone. So she texted Crisis Text Line, a 24/7 messaging service where users can text a number and receive a reply from a trained volunteer crisis counselors. After about 15 minutes, she got a response.
As the evening went on, Madison (whose name has been changed to protect her identity) started pacing around her room, until finally, a trans friend and counselor from her school responded, who talked to her until she was able to go to sleep.
Even before our next president was declared, Americans were feeling stressed out about the election. An October survey from the American Psychological Association found that 52% of American adults reported that the election was a “significant source of stress” in their lives.
And with Trump now headed for the White House, the communities the president-elect took repeated and aggressive aim at during his campaign—women, people of color, immigrants, Muslims, LGBTQ people, the list goes on—have had their worst fears realized.
Looking at Twitter on election night, Madison wasn't alone in her reported experience of struggling to make contact with crisis hotlines designed to help people, especially in minority communities, in times of personal turmoil. Donald Trump being elected president could be these crisis centers' greatest test yet.
Indeed, Crisis Text Line was one of many suicide crisis lines across the nation to see a dramatic increase in the number of users on election night. I spoke with five of them this past week, and they all told me they saw a record numbers the night of Nov. 8. For some, this is only the beginning of more calls from people worried, anxious, and outright terrified by a Donald Trump presidency.
“We saw a 124% surge in calls in the two-three days after the election,” Steve Mendelsohn, a spokesperson for the The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention hotline for LGBTQ youth, told me. “Things are starting to slow down a little, but numbers are still much higher than normal.”
For the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, one of the largest of its kind, election night saw one of the highest number of calls since its launch in 2005, with a 140% surge in the number of calls received between 1 and 2 a.m. EST, about the time Donald Trump was declared president.
“We first saw about a 30% increase in calls Monday when people had some anticipatory anxiety about [the election],” Dr. John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, told me. “But Tuesday evening going into Wednesday was unlike anything we’d seen.”
Typically, Draper said, the lifeline receives about 250 calls between 1 and 2 a.m—in the early hours of Wednesday morning, it received 660. The only other time the center had seen such a drastic increase, Draper said, was after the suicide of actor Robin Williams in 2014.
“With Robin Williams, it was an incident directly related to suicide, and people were sharing the news of Robin’s death with our number next to it,” he said. “This time, there was no promotion of the hotline whatsoever.”
Other crisis hotlines saw surges in callers, too. Mendelsohn said Wednesday was the highest volume day The Trevor Project has had in the past four years. Although he wouldn’t provide specific numbers, Mendelsohn said the hotline receives an average of 54,000 calls each year.
“Almost all of the calls in the past day and a half [after Trump won] have mentioned the election, so this is definitely having an impact,” he said. “The callers are concerned that the progress we’ve made in the past several years might be reversed, so they’re worried about their futures.”
Trans Lifeline, a support line for transgender people, received more than 350 calls from trans people in crisis over in the days following Nov. 8, many of whom said they were feeling suicidal after they heard the election results, the group said.
“What people are most concerned about is the loss of the Affordable Care Act,” spokeswoman Greta Martela told me. “Some of these trans folks have just gotten access to trans-affordable medical care, and it looks like Congress is going to remove that. This election has been particularly rough on trans people, so a lot of them are having a difficult time contemplating things getting harder.”
Lyn Morris, Senior Vice President of Clinical Operations for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, home of the nation’s first Suicide Prevention Center, said that the service does tend to get more calls and chats when people are upset by current events.
“Our call and chat volume were 23% to 30% higher than usual immediately before, during, and after the election,” she said. “Over 100 of the calls and chats we received during that period mentioned either the election or Donald Trump and another 12 calls or chats referenced either being gay or LGBTQ and the election results.”
According to Crisis Text Line’s chief data scientist, Bob Filbin, “election” and “scared” appeared most the night of Nov. 8, with “scared and “LGBTQ” being the most common association.
As someone with social anxiety who has experienced suicidal thoughts, Alex, 21, has texted the Crisis Text Line before to receive support through tough times. Usually, he said, he gets a response anywhere from two to 15 minutes. On election night, waiting even that short amount of time proved grueling for his anxiety.
“I am female-to-male transgendered, and [Trump’s] election terrifies me,” he told me in an email. “I [texted] because I was having a panic attack and dangerous thoughts about hurting myself, as well as being overwhelmed with what had just occurred on the election."
Twitter was flooded on election night with users saying they were hearing busy signals and experience longer wait times trying to reach a hotline.
None of the services I spoke with were able to outright confirm that callers or messengers had experienced long wait times (or weren't able to connect at all), citing user privacy and insufficient data collection.
A spokesperson for Crisis Text Line said that because of privacy concerns, the group was unable to comment on individual conversations, but did confirm that the service, which has more than 2,000 crisis counselors, saw an overall increase in response time. Crisis counselors were able to help 91% of texters in under five minutes, they said, and those who were considered high-risk were connected with support staff in an average of 39 seconds.
Frances Gonzales, director of communications for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said she couldn’t confirm if individuals got busy signals, and said, despite the tweets, the center didn’t receive formal reports of major issues with the lines.
“Sometimes people might confuse waiting to be connected with a busy signal, but I can’t say for sure. If they experienced a problem and want to file a formal report, we can look at each call individually,” she told me.
According to the service, when someone calls the lifeline, their call is redirected to one of 160 local crisis centers. If that center is busy, their call is redirected, and the pattern continues until the caller is able to reach someone.
Draper, the lifeline's director, said he wasn’t immediately able to tell which local crisis centers received the most calls on election night, because each collect their own data, but did say the large volume of calls emphasized the need for more volunteers for the centers.
“Some local crisis centers are under-resourced and do need additional support,” he said. “Between all of us together, we can get a pretty strong public safety net, but it gets tested during times like this.”
Most people who do contact crisis support centers feel that it’s worth it. Filbin said 88% of texters to Crisis Text Line said connecting with the service was helpful, which Alex, who texted the Crisis Text Line, agreed with.
“I did manage to talk to someone helpful,” he told me. “A really nice and supporting lady who helped me until I calmed down.”
Mendelsohn said that the Trevor Project is preparing for the increase in callers in the coming months by increasing its text service and searching for more funding. But in the meantime, he was encouraged by the number of people who signed up to volunteer nationwide.
“We’ve seen a huge increase in people wanting to volunteer, like 600 people over the past week from all across the country,” he said. “That just shows people understand this is very serious and want to do what they can to help out.”
Here's how you can get started volunteering for a crisis center:
Find a center near you
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline suggests directly contacting a center near you to ask about its specific needs. You can search local crisis centers here.
Fill out an application
To volunteer for the Crisis Text Line, start by filling out an application and consenting to a background check. If your application is accepted, you'll take part in a web-training, and eventually start answering texts from users.
Attend an orientation
Before you can apply to help the Trevor Project, the group requires that you learn more about the organization through one of its volunteer sessions. You can find out more here.
Record a message
If you want to help out but don't want to commit to answering calls or texts, you can record a 15-30 second video message of support and post it to social media. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline suggests using the hashtags #suicideispreventable #800273TALK and #LETITOUT.
Update, 11/18/2016: This post has been updated to clarify the amount of time Madison and Alex waited for a response from Crisis Text Line. The post has also been updated to properly reflect the training of the service's crisis counselors.
Allison Pohle is a journalist based in Boston. She also tweets, and types with only two fingers because she never learned how to use the home keys.