Aug 1, 2023 - Health

988 calls, texts for mental health help in Minnesota spike in year one

Suicide Crisis Lifeline contacts received from Minnesota
Data: Minnesota Department of Health. Chart: Axios Visuals

Minnesotans experiencing mental health crises are increasingly turning to texts for help.

What's happening: Texts to Minnesota's suicide prevention and mental health hotline have increased more than 900% in the 10 months since the hotline rebranded to 988 last summer, per Minnesota Department of Health data.

  • Calls, which still comprise the majority of contacts, doubled over the same period.

Catch up fast: The goal of the national 988 rollout was to make it easier for people in need to get support via a 911-style hotline.

  • The three-digit number debuted in July of 2022 as an alternative to the hotline's existing toll-free number.

How it works: Anyone experiencing a mental health emergency or concerned about a situation involving a loved one can use 988 to call or text the hotline and connect with a trained crisis specialist free of charge 24 hours a day, seven days a week. A live online chat option is also available.

  • More than 6,600 people in Minnesota reached out through one of those modes in May, up from nearly 3,500 in May of 2022.

What they're saying: "It's an easier-to-remember number, but we're also coming out of a pandemic, [and] we know that a lot of people are taking a closer look at mental health and their mental well-being," Emily Lindeman, a suicide prevention coordinator with MDH, told Axios of the increase.

Yes, but: More than 80% of Americans still aren't familiar with the new hotline, according to a recent National Alliance on Mental Illness survey.

Plus: 14.5% of the 988 calls made from Minnesota area codes went unanswered by a local lifeline center between April and May, per a new analysis from health research outlet KFF.

  • Local specialists have been able to respond to about half the texts sent since the state centers started fielding those messages 24/7 in April 2023, MDH says.

Between the lines: Unanswered calls are routed to centers in other states. While those teams are trained and accredited in the same way as the local specialists, it can be challenging for out-of-state professionals to quickly locate nearby services for people in crisis.

  • For example, "a center answering in California might not necessarily know that Minnesota has mobile crisis teams," Lindeman said.

Zoom in: Lindeman noted that Minnesota's unanswered call rate is on par with what the state saw before the new number.

  • "Even with the increase in call volume, they're still able to answer the same level of calls," she said, crediting efforts to staff up last year ahead of the transition.

Zoom out: Minnesota is one of a small number of states to approve a new telecom fee to pay for the local Lifeline response, per KFF.

What's next: The new surcharge on monthly phone bills, capped at 25 cents, will fund ongoing operations and hiring at the state's call centers.

  • Lindeman said that funding is crucial because advocates expect the volume of calls and texts will only increase over time.

The bottom line: "We have to remember, we're at the beginning of what's going to be a marathon, not a sprint," Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing, told Axios' Sabrina Moreno.

  • "It's taken 15 years for 911 to evolve to the kind of system that it is today. We're just one year in."
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