West Virginians struggling with mental health challenges are urged to remember just three numbers that can get them connected to trained professionals for help whenever they need it: 988.
The new crisis line went live in the state on July 16 and, as of last week, officials with the Department of Health and Human Resources announced the transition to the three-digit line was successfully completed.
“This is something we’ve been doing for a long time,” said Christina Mullins, commissioner for the DHHR Bureau for Behavioral Health. “When the decision was made to go to a three-digit format, West Virginia was in a really good position already.”
Through grants to the bureau, the state had been funding the National Suicide Prevention Line for “a long time,” Mullins said, and First Choice Services — the company the state contracts with to work a number of its help lines — was already coordinating the service.
This made a transition to the 988 line simpler. Call centers and workers were already set up throughout West Virginia. The largest change the line brings — aside from the convenience of being just three digits — is “convenience,” Mullins said.
In addition to calling the line, those in need also can text and enter into a chat with an operator. Those operators are specially trained on how to handle specific mental health situations and what resources to offer those who need it. Since July 16, the system has fielded nearly 900 new requests.
“We want people to get help in the way that’s most comfortable for them. That’s fundamental to ensuring they use the service,” Mullins said. “What we’re envisioning now [through 988] is bigger than just a call. We want someone to respond to the crisis after the call and give the person a place to go for even more help.”
West Virginia holds the 10th-highest suicide rate in the nation, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mullins said building up the infrastructure and services to lower that rate is critical.
To do that, Mullins said, the Bureau for Behavioral Health is ramping up response efforts for mental health crises. A mobile crisis service to respond to children is in the works statewide, and there are five adult crisis teams being set up in addition to the three that already exist.
“No matter where you are statewide, we want to get a mobile crisis team to you in under an hour,” Mullins said. “The 988 center helps us coordinate that and more.”
The line also is an effort to de-escalate mental health crises before they become dangerous for either the person suffering or those around them.
“De-escalating the crisis is critical, and the purpose of the hotline is doing that by giving people someone to talk to. These crisis counselors answering the phone really care, and they’re trained to deal with these situations,” Mullins said. “We are trying to avoid involving law enforcement for these types of calls. We want people to call 988, as opposed to 911. We want them to talk to crisis counselors and get the help they need, not necessarily law enforcement.”
This is all part of the state’s efforts to develop a solid continuum of care for those who are struggling with mental health. While these issues have always existed, Mullins said the coronavirus pandemic made many aware of how deep they were and also how prevalent.
She said she hopes that, soon, West Virginia can have fully staffed wrap-around services for anyone struggling with mental health. They would be able to use the 988 line to talk with crisis counselors whenever needed. Those counselors would then be able to coordinate and dispatch a crisis team, tailored to whatever the needs of the person struggling are, to go out and help them. That team could assist with any acute issues, then connect the person and those around them with further resources to use.
Eventually, Mullins said, she’d like to have some kind of “mental health urgent care” available for residents.
“The same way you would go to urgent care when you have a cold or flu, or you need stitches, we want that to be available for behavioral and mental health,” Mullins said. “This is all part of the continuum of care. We want people to get the care they need and prevent a crisis any way we can.”