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Virginia is leading in success with 988 helpline

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(The Center Square) — It has been a year since 988 became the number for the revamped 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, and Virginia is leading the nation in several implementation areas.

Since 988 was established last summer, there have been “almost 5 million contacts, of which nearly 1 million are from the Veteran’s Crisis Line – a part of 988 – with the rest consisting of 2.6 million calls, over 740,000 chats, and more than 600,000 texts,” according to a study from think tank KFF.

Prior to the 988 hotline, there was a National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 1-800-273-TALK, but it didn’t get as much use. Behind the change of the number and the name was an effort to destigmatize the helpline and create a number that would be memorable and easy to use in a moment of crisis.

“With the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, even though they did answer a range of crises, it was billed as the ‘National Suicide Prevetion Lifeline.’ So a lot of people who [were] not feeling suicidal but were in distress didn’t feel like that was a resource for them,” said Hannah Wesolowski, the chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

The number of total contacts—including calls, texts and chats increased by 33% from the year prior, according to the study.

Virginia is one of 14 states leading the country with call answer rates between 90 and 98%. Several states have a better call answer rate than Virginia, but all have smaller call volumes, with some volumes around 11% of the commonwealth’s.

Virginia’s call volume was the second-largest among the 14, with 11,688 calls in the last year and a call answer rate of 92.3%.

Since the initiation of 988, the national average for answer wait time for the line has dropped from two minutes and 20 seconds to 35 seconds. The commonwealth’s average contact wait time is about 20 seconds, which, according to the Richmond Times-Dispatch, makes Virginia a national leader.

The federal government established 988 as the universal hotline for suicide prevention and mental health crisis. It provided funding for the program, but the states and local governments must devise their own long-term funding.

In the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, the government enabled states to collect fees for 988 services to fund the program’s ongoing operations.

Virginia is one of only six states that have “enacted legislation to fund crisis services through telecom fees,” according to KFF, and was one of the earliest to put these in place.

Gov. Glenn Youngkin has demonstrated a commitment to addressing mental and behavioral health in the commonwealth through his Right Help, Right Now plan, a three-year plan announced in December of 2022 designed to “transform Virginia’s behavioral health system.”

The governor proposed over $230 million in funding for the first of the plan alone, including funding for over 30 mobile crisis teams to respond to 988 calls.

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