Background: Each year, many help seekers in need contact health helplines for mental support. It is crucial that they receive support immediately, and that waiting times are minimal. In order to minimize delay, helplines must have adequate staffing levels, especially during peak hours. This has raised the need for means to predict the call and chat volumes ahead of time accurately. Motivated by this, in this paper, we analyze real-life data to develop models for accurately forecasting call volumes, for both phone and chat conversations for online mental health support. Methods: This research was conducted on real call and chat data (adequately anonymized) provided by 113 Suicide Prevention (Over ons | 113 Zelfmoordpreventie) (throughout referred to as ‘113’), the online helpline for suicide prevention in the Netherlands. Chat and phone call data were analyzed to better understand the important factors that influence the call arrival process. These factors were then used as input to several Machine Learning (ML) models to forecast the number of call and chat arrivals. Next to that, senior counselors of the helpline completed a web-based questionnaire after each shift to assess their perception of the workload. Results: This study has led to several remarkable and key insights. First, the most important factors that determine the call volumes for the helpline are the trend, and weekly and daily cyclic patterns (cycles), while monthly and yearly cycles were found to be non-significant predictors for the number of phone and chat conversations. Second, media events that were included in this study only have limited—and only short-term—impact on the call volumes. Third, so-called (S)ARIMA models are shown to lead to the most accurate prediction in the case of short-term forecasting, while simple linear models work best for long-term forecasting. Fourth, questionnaires filled in by senior counselors show that the experienced workload is mainly correlated to the number of chat conversations compared to phone calls. Conclusion: (S)ARIMA models can best be used to forecast the number of daily chats and phone calls with a MAPE of less than 10 in short-term forecasting. These models perform better than other models showing that the number of arrivals depends on historical data. These forecasts can be used as support for planning the number of counselors needed. Furthermore, the questionnaire data show that the workload experienced by senior counselors is more dependent on the number of chat arrivals and less on the number of available agents, showing the value of insight into the arrival process of conversations.

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BMC Public Health
Samenwerkingsovereenkomst Stichting 113 / CWI - Zelfmoordpreventie
Centrum Wiskunde & Informatica, Amsterdam (CWI), The Netherlands

de Boer, T. R., Mérelle, S., Bhulai, S., Gilissen, R., & van der Mei, R. (2023). Forecasting call and chat volumes at online helplines for mental health. BMC Public Health, 23(1). doi:10.1186/s12889-023-15887-2