Jul 25, 2023 - News

Colorado leaves some 988 suicide and crisis hotline calls unanswered

Share of 988 suicide and crisis hotline calls left unanswered in their own state
Data: Kaiser Family Foundation; Note: Does not include calls to the Veterans Crisis Line; Map: Alice Feng/Axios

Dialing the national suicide prevention hotline got easier last year, but answering those calls has proven difficult for crisis workers in Colorado and other parts of the country.

Driving the news: Nearly 22% of the calls made in April and May this year to Colorado's 988 call center went unanswered by local workers, the 13th-worst rate in the U.S., per a new analysis from health research outlet KFF.

  • That means, of the 11,208 calls made during that time, more than 2,400 received no immediate response.
  • Between 988's launch in July 2022 through June 2023, the rate of 988 calls that went unanswered in Colorado hovered around 17%, according to state data provided to Axios Denver.

Why it matters: When local counselors don't answer, calls are routed to out-of-state crisis centers.

  • "If national overflow facility counselors are not familiar with local resources, they may not be able to assist callers with treatment referrals or extra assistance, which can be better provided by local crisis centers," per KFF.

Zoom in: Prior to 988's debut last year, Bev Marquez, CEO of Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners — the state's crisis line provider— says they weren't receiving enough funding to hire an adequate amount of staff to answer hotline calls.

  • But as resources have ramped up thanks to state funding, Marquez tells us the 988 answer rate is improving.

Between the lines: Pressure to boost answer rates is mounting from Vibrant, the contractor that oversees the 988 hotline, Marquez notes. Earlier this year, an official with the national hotline was sent to Gov. Jared Polis' office "and said, 'We're really worried about your call center,'" Marquez recounts.

  • The Polis administration declined to give Axios Denver an interview.

Reality check: The nature of the calls workers receive has grown more alarming, making it harder for Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners to retain staff, according to Marquez.

What they're saying: "There's more people thinking about suicide, more relationships ending … and we're now hearing from 9- and 10-year-olds," Marquez says.

  • Call lengths have also gotten longer with more "folks disconnected to their social networks and communities" since the pandemic, she notes.

The big picture: Colorado is one of only a handful of states nationwide that have enacted monthly fees on phone lines to support the new system, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

  • The state's tax is capped at 30 cents per phone line, but currently sits at about 18 cents.

The other side: Republican state Rep. Matthew Soper, who co-sponsored the bipartisan 988 hotline legislation in Colorado, called the state's answer rate "unacceptable and aberrant," in an emailed statement to Axios Denver.

  • "Not having your telephone call answered is the worst treatment for someone having a mental health crisis!" he wrote. "We owe it to all Coloradans to fix this problem and ensure when someone calls 988, their call will be answered and lives saved."

What we're watching: As 988 enters its second year, state officials tell us they plan to prioritize workforce development at the hotline center.

  • Officials also want to ramp up outreach and education, and bolster mobile crisis response services that can quickly respond to 988 calls in person when needed.

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that pressure to boost answer rates is mounting from Vibrant, which oversees the 988 hotline (not the Biden administration). It has been updated to clarify the timing of Rocky Mountain Crisis Partners' funding shortfall to staff its hotline.

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