Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from West Virginia have increased significantly in recent years. Between 2018 and 2021, call volume in the state rose from 6,543 to 10,691 – an increase of 63%. Fortunately, the suicide rate in West Virginia has not had a corresponding increase.
Lata Menon, CEO of First Choice Services, the Charleston-based company that provides Lifeline services for West Virginia, says this may be because people at risk of self-harm can quickly reach a crisis counselor, but she expressed concern that this may soon change.
To address this crisis, Congress unanimously enacted the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 which created the three-digit phone number, 988 as the universal number for the National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Hotline System. Congress mandated a deadline of July 16, 2022 for 988 to be available nationwide
In July 2022, 988 will be implemented nationwide to facilitate quick access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The scope of the line will additionally be marketed not only as a number for those in suicidal crisis, but also for anyone experiencing mental health distress or crisis. The easily recalled number, the broader scope of the line, the accessibility via chat and text, and a national marketing campaign are factors that will increase the volume of Lifeline contacts throughout the country.
Too often, when individuals experiencing a mental health crisis need help, they are met by law enforcement, resulting in unnecessary incarceration, trauma, or worse. Between one-quarter and half of all fatal law enforcement encounters involve individuals with a serious mental illness.
Vibrant Emotional Health, administrator for the national hotline, estimates the number of West Virginians seeking Lifeline help may exceed 30,000 annually. Menon said, “We are heartened to know the changes will make access easier and offer help to many more people who are suffering, but we are concerned our current program will simply not be able to meet such high volume. Without additional staff, help seekers will experience longer waits and eventually reach support out of our state. In suicide prevention, we know that every second counts. And we know that it works best when West Virginians respond to West Virginians.”
988 will be critical to managing an anticipated significant increase in call volume due to the pandemic, preventing deaths, and stopping the criminalization of mental illness. To fund this overhaul, Congress authorized states to pass user fees on telephone lines – the same source used to fund 911.
Several states have already passed legislation to ensure they are ready to handle needs within their state, but West Virginia has yet to do so. Menon reports a solution may be at hand. West Virginia Senate Bill 181 shores up long-term stability for the Call Center as well as its connection to regional crisis centers where those seeking help can receive evaluation and treatment. She said, “When you or your loved one is in crisis, instead of calling the police or going to an emergency room, you should be able to immediately reach a crisis counselor who has the training to provide needed support and referral. Senate Bill 181 will ensure that West Virginia’s Crisis Call Center is prepared to answer the need in our state.”
Anyone feeling depressed, suicidal, or in need of emotional support can reach the National Suicide Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.