By The Herald Editorial Board
You might not have even noticed it on your phone bill, but for each phone line you’re paying 24 cents every month for a service that is saving lives, assuring that when someone is contemplating suicide or experiencing a mental-health crisis, a trained crisis counselor will be on the other end, able to offer help when they dial three numbers: 988.
Earlier this month, the existing national Suicide and Crisis Lifeline system, which was available by calling a 1-800 number, shortened the number to 988. The old number — 1-800-273-TALK — still works, but the new number — just as 911 simplified calls for medical, fire and other emergencies — is intended to greatly improve access to behavioral and mental health services and supports. As well, help also is available through text and chat services now.
While the system is nationwide, a handful of states — Washington state among them — have gone further to increase staffing at call centers and continue work to improve coordination and communication that provides immediate crisis counseling but also works to connect people with further assistance.
That work was celebrated Thursday at the new home of the Volunteers of America Behavioral Health Crisis Care Center in Everett, one of three such call centers in Washington state, picking up the line when people in crisis seek help. The Everett VOA office is handling calls and texts from 32 of the state’s 39 counties, and is offering backup support for texts for other states as needed.
“Mental health is so critical, that if we do not take care of it, mental illness kills,” said Dr. Umair A. Shah, Washington state’s secretary of health, joining Gov. Jay Inslee, state lawmakers, state and federal agency officials and others to mark the start of the 988 service. “Having that access to mental health services, including a lifeline to be able to get that crisis counseling at the very moment you need it is so critical to saving lives.”
And the word is out.
Just since the July 16 launch of the 988 number, an average of about 150 calls come in daily to the Everett VOA office, a 47 percent increase, and a 66 percent increase over the same time last year, said Levi Van Dyke, senior director of behavioral health services for Volunteers of America Western Washington.
Those call figures represent a major response improvement over figures from 2020, when a report from Vibrant Emotional Health, the national lifeline administrator, reported Washington state answered 74 percent of its calls — 34,941 of 47,157 — made from Washington state numbers to the lifeline.
What that 24 cents a month from every phone accomplished — increasing to 40 cents a month next January — is funding that has allowed the VOA to boost its staffing four-fold to ensure calls are answered and wait times are reduced. Most calls now are being answered within the first seven seconds.
“It’s access to care at the moment of crisis that saves lives,” Shah said.
Inslee and state Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, who sponsored the legislation with state Sen. Mankra Dhingra, D-Redmond, that established funding, programs and expectations for the 988 service in the state, praised the leadership that the state has shown nationwide. Washington is only one of four states, including Nevada, Colorado and Virginia, to adopt a fee to support 988 implementation.
The legislation also requires that starting next January Medicare and private insurance providers ensure that follow-up care is made available the next day after calling 988.
“If someone calls in and is told, ‘No, it’s going to be a four- to six-week wait for an appointment,’ that is not going to work for a person in crisis,” Orwall said.
That improved access is already occurring, said Orwall, noting Providence Regional Medical Center’s Behavioral Health Urgent Care clinic, but even as Washington leads other states, the state needs to continue work to improve access to behavioral health care.
Van Dyke and others pointed to “23-hour crisis centers,” such as that established in Tuscon and elsewhere in Arizona, where those calling 988 can be referred to mobile teams or an inpatient center when support and services are available within 23 hours of someone’s call to 988.
“There aren’t a lot of those available right now, so that’s part of the focus to get more low-barrier bed access for behavioral health care or psychiatric care,” Van Dyke said. “This is an important first step, but the goal is to really build up the crisis-care continuum,” by establishing teams of people who can go out in the community and see people face-to-face.
Orwall, Dhingra and Inslee each said funding for such efforts will be a focus in the coming legislative session, a budget year.
“This is a high-priority for our administration because we recognize the critical nature of mental health,” Inslee said. “Frankly, that has been devalued for decades. This is just as important as physical health.”
One of the responsibilities of a leader is to set the pace and set expectations for others. When Congress passed the legislation that authorized the 988 lifeline, it left states to take up responsibility for administering the program. Washington and a few others committed their residents to support that work with less than 50 cents a month from every phone. Washington state must continue to lead to meet the needs of its residents but also to make sure other states follow.
In 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported, there were 1.2 million suicide attempts in the U.S., and nearly 46,000 Americans died by suicide that year. More than a quarter of American adults suffer from a diagnosable mental disorder, according to Johns Hopkins Medicine.
When someone calls 988, they are expecting someone to be there for them.
It’s our responsibility to make sure someone is there to pick up the lifeline and pull them to safety.