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CHARLESTON — Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline of West Virginia have increased dramatically in recent years.

NOTE: Anyone feeling depressed, suicidal, or in need of emotional support can reach the National Suicide Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.

Between 2018 and 2021, call volume in the state increased from 6,543 to 10,691, a 63% increase. The suicide rate in West Virginia, however, has not seen a corresponding increase.

Lata Menon, CEO of First Choice Services, the Charleston-based company that provides Lifeline services for West Virginia, says it may be because people at risk of self-harm can quickly contact a crisis counselor. , but she expressed her concern that this will soon change. .

To address this crisis, Congress unanimously passed 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 has set a deadline of July 16, 2022 for 988 to be available nationwide.

In July 2022, 988 will be implemented nationwide to facilitate timely access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The reach of the line will further be marketed not only as a number for people in a suicidal crisis, but also for anyone in distress or in a mental health crisis. The easy-to-recall number, wider reach of the line, accessibility via chat and text, and a national marketing campaign are factors that will increase Lifeline’s contact volume nationwide.

Too often, when people dealing with a mental health crisis need help, they are taken in by law enforcement, resulting in unnecessary incarceration, trauma, or worse. Between a quarter and half of all fatal encounters with law enforcement involve people with serious mental illness.

Vibrant Emotional Health, administrator of the national hotline, estimates that the number of West Virginians seeking Lifeline’s help could exceed 30,000 a year. Menon said: “We are heartened to know that the changes will provide easier access and help to many more people who are suffering, but we are concerned that our current program simply will not be able to respond to such a high volume. . Without additional staff, help seekers will experience longer waits and eventually get help outside of our state. In suicide prevention, we know that every second counts. And we know it works best when West Virginia meets West Virginia.

988 will be critical to managing an expected 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 usage charges on phone lines — the same source used to fund 911.

Several states have already passed legislation to ensure they are prepared to meet their state’s needs, but West Virginia has yet to do so. Menon reports that a solution may be at hand. West Virginia Senate Bill 181 strengthens the call center’s long-term stability as well as its connection to regional crisis centers where those seeking help can receive assessment and treatment. She said: ‘When you or your loved one are in crisis, instead of calling the police or going to the emergency room, you should be able to immediately contact a crisis counselor who is trained to provide support and guidance. required. Senate Bill 181 will ensure that the West Virginia Crisis Call Center is ready to meet the needs of our state.