The federal government is planning to make it easier to reach mental health hotlines like ours, and we are elated. The federal government is exploring assigning 9-8-8 as a nationwide mental health hotline number similar to 9-1-1, making it easier to remember and quicker to reach. This movement towards 9-8-8 sends a strong message that mental health is as important as physical wellbeing. However, critical funding must be part of the equation to support this effort as centers are struggling with capacity.
We have operated Northern Virginia’s hotline and textline through our CrisisLink program for years. There has been a lot of recent national attention related to suicide prevention for a variety of reasons such as high-profile cases, veterans, Netflix’s 13 Reasons. This greater attention has already contributed to an increase in the number of people reaching out for help to our local suicide prevention hotline.
This trend is also occurring nationwide…a fact that we know firsthand. Earlier this year, we received grants to serve as a national back-up center and core chat center in support of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network to help address longer wait times nationwide as queues pile up for the hotline and chatline. The Lifeline network of roughly 160+ centers answers its local calls, but when local centers are backed up, many of these calls and chats roll over to PRS’ CrisisLink hotline.
It’s been much busier than expected, and we have had to staff up to address the high demand. Prior to the expansion, we received a monthly average of 4,500 crisis calls. With the addition of the national hotline back-up center and chatline services, our call volume has more than doubled, and we expect the chatline to generate over 20,000 chats in the first year.
At PRS, crisis workers who field calls are a combination of staff and volunteers. They are highly trained for these stressful but rewarding positions. Training takes time to ensure hotlines, textlines, and chatlines have people in place who can provide the required, specialized support through high-quality, evidence-informed interventions.
We, of course, want to make it even easier for people in distress to reach out, and having the capacity to answer the calls is critical. Right now, most of the local providers are supported through a combination of individual donations and grants from foundations and local governments. We have announced a $1 million campaign this year to raise funds to support this and our other mental health initiatives, but this is only a start. That’s why implementation of the 9-8-8 number must include adequate national funding for the crisis intervention providers across the country who answer these calls and at the scale of the demand with high quality technology and infrastructure.
We completely support having an emergency mental health number as long as PRS and centers like ours are funded at scale to ensure every call is answered and answered quickly. No one in their darkest hours should have to wait.
PRS CEO Wendy Gradison