Jul. 23—The official launch was just over a week ago and many West Virginians are already taking advantage of the 988-dialing code launched nationwide last week to make it easier for those having a mental health crisis to access the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by phone, text message, or online chat.
Here in West Virginia, an organization called First Choice Services is the only crisis center answering calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline for the state since 2017. Over a dozen other mental health and addiction hotlines are operated by the organization, including gambling line, tobacco quit line, 211 social service assistance and others.
First Choice Services CEO Lata Menon said the line did see a little spike over the weekend when it launched, but she believed the call spike was not as large as some other states.
"Our call spike — when we looked at it in the context of the past three months — we looked at the same three days for the past three months, " Menon said. "It was not tremendously higher than we had seen before."
Menon said she expects the line will start receiving more calls once awareness spreads.
"I don't know that West Virginia has even begun to see what we will over time as people become familiar with those digits, " she said.
Upon dialing the 988 number, you get an automatic message that gives you the option to switch to Spanish or to be transferred to the Veterans Crisis Line, if needed.
Your call will then be routed to a local crisis center, usually within 30 seconds, where you will be connected with a trained staff member, professional, or volunteer — although states with higher call volumes may take longer and at times may go unanswered on the first try.
The lifeline is able to connect more than 80 % of callers to a call center on the first attempt and around 95 % on subsequent attempts — but West Virginia has been doing a little bit better.
"One thing that a lot of people don't know about our West Virginia call center is that we have one of the highest answer rates in the country, " Menon said. "For the past several months, our rate has hovered around 95 %, which puts us in the top ranks for states as far as their answer rates go."
Menon said they try to keep their response time answering the calls at a minimum and a crisis worker usually picks up within two rings — or approximately 15 seconds.
Text and chat options may not receive responses as quickly, mainly due to the extra time it takes to type out communications, Menon said, however these options may feel easier or safer for many people.
The text and chat functions are now available nationwide, Mendon said, because for the first time in the history of the line, the national partners were able to route state chats and texts within the state.
However, the options were available in some areas of the country before the 988 launch by texting the 800 number, it just wasn't widely advertised as an option, Menan said.
"Prior to this month, chats and texts were in a giant national queue, " she explained. "Some other folks were doing that, but we were not participating in that giant national queue."
Crisis workers were able to get some experience with the text formats prior to the state launch after the service was awarded a contract by national partners to be a national backup chat and text center.
"So we've been answering that national queue in that program since March, " Menan said.
In addition to the local call center network changes, all phone service providers were mandated to have the service available to all customers by the July 16 launch.
"We did it in 2020. So we jumped on it a little bit earlier, " said Brandi McCure, area sales manager for U.S. Cellular. "We wanted to have the service available a lot sooner, but all providers should have this availability so whenever you call the 988 number, it's going to take you to the lifeline."
In 2020, calls to the lifeline's 800 number totaled 10, 842 in West Virginia alone.
McCure said the new shortcode is "a quicker way to get help. And you know, suicide is such an extreme issue across the U.S. right now. I think the statistics in 2020 was every 11 minutes there was a suicide.
"So the more we can get the word out about the 988 shortcode across all providers, not just U.S. Cellular, to make sure people are aware and are remembering that it's there."
The existing 800 number for the lifeline, 800-273-TALK (8255) is still in service and will be indefinitely, Menan said. Both the 988 number and the 800 number will connect you to the local crisis center.
Callers should know that crisis workers are usually not licensed mental health professionals. However, they have received extensive training in how to help people who reach out to the lifeline and have clinical staff support available to them.
Menan said the organization is also looking to staff more crisis workers, who only need the desire to help people to be considered.
"We're happy to get people who have a good deal of experience and high-level degrees, " Menan said, "but we have entry-level positions where we will teach people everything that they need to know about this work and about the way we communicate with people and how we listen to people."
If you, or a friend or loved one, is in a suicidal crisis or emotional distress, you are encouraged to reach out to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988. It is free, confidential and offers support 24 /7.