CHARLESTON — On Monday, April 11 Governor Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 181, creating the West Virginia 988 mental health crisis system. The bill originated in response to the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, which designated the three-digit phone number 988 as the universal number for the National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Hotline System. During this year’s legislative session, Senate bill 181 passed unanimously through the West Virginia House and Senate, without the dedicated funding mechanism recommended by advocates, but with a commitment from the West Virginia Department of Health and Human Resources to fully fund the Lifeline Call Center.
In July 2022, the phone number 988 will be activated nationwide to facilitate quick access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The previous access number, 1-800-273-TALK, will remain in service as well. The new easily recalled number will also be broadly marketed to include mental health distress and crisis. While Lifeline contacts have been on a steady increase over the past many years, the broader scope of 988 services, its access by call, text or chat and the simple number are expected to result in an even more dramatic increase in the volume of Lifeline contacts throughout the country. Experts predict Lifeline volume may as much as triple in the first year alone.
West Virginians seeking support via the Lifeline can expect to have their calls answered by crisis counselors at First Choice Services, a nonprofit agency located in Charleston, West Virginia. First Choice Services operates several behavioral health and social service helplines and programs and serves over 115,000 people per year. With the passage of Senate Bill 181, and in anticipation of the volume to come, the agency is currently hiring and training more counselors to answer the Lifeline. 988 Program Director, Terrance Hamm of Charleston, has been busy recruiting and training new staff. He says the new 988 system reflects a commitment to helping those in crisis. “In many states, the Suicide Lifeline was an afterthought, a line with little funding or cohesion. Now, we have a highly trained staff dedicated to this line 24/7. We lose a person to suicide about every 22 hours here in West Virginia. We’d like to see that number be 0.”