Jul 21, 2023 - News

State's 988 crisis line sees calls spike 75% in first year

A smartphone with 988 on the screen.

Illustration: Eniola Odetunde/Axios

Washington's crisis call centers have seen a 75% increase in call volume since a new helpline went live a year ago, fielding about 90,000 requests for help since last July, according to data shared by state officials.

Why it matters: The development of a new three-digit hotline, 988, to replace the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was intended to make it easier for people to seek help during their darkest moments — and state officials say the past year's call volume shows the system is working.

What they're saying: "The whole goal of 988 was to have an easy-to-remember option to provide people mental health and crisis support," Michele Roberts, the state health department's assistant secretary for prevention and community health, told reporters.

  • "The first year is showing us that transition is well underway."

By the numbers: In addition to answering 65,000 phone calls between July 2022 and June 2023, Washington's three 988 call centers answered 12,000 texts and more than 13,000 chats, state officials said this week.

Yes, but: In April and May, about 12% of calls to the 988 line from Washington state area codes went unanswered by in-state call centers, causing those calls to be directed out of state, according to an analysis by the Kaiser Family Foundation.

  • That redirection can result in callers receiving less knowledgeable help, according to KFF's analysis.
  • "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.
Data: Kaiser Family Foundation; Note: Does not include calls to the Veterans Crisis Line; Map: Alice Feng/Axios

State of play: State Rep. Tina Orwall (D-Des Moines) told Axios that while the ultimate goal is to have in-state call centers answer 95% of 988 calls, answer rates at such centers have improved significantly from where they were a few years ago.

  • Pre-pandemic, only about half of calls were getting answered at some call centers, she said.
  • That was before the state tripled staffing at crisis call centers to gear up for the 988 launch, she said.

The big picture: Washington is one of only six states nationwide that have enacted monthly fees on phone lines to support the 988 system, per the National Alliance on Mental Illness. The state's tax is 40 cents per phone line, per month.

Plus: State lawmakers approved new legislation this year to scale up mobile teams that can quickly respond to 988 crisis calls in person when needed.

  • The goal is to make sure that for "anyone who calls and needs that additional level of support, that we are able to respond rapidly, so 988 truly can be an alternative to 911," Roberts said.

What we're watching: The state also plans to expand walk-in crisis relief centers, so that people experiencing mental health crises — including those who reach out to 988 — have more places to go, Orwall said.


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