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One year out, challenges remain for new suicide prevention hotline

To simplify calling for help, last year Congress passed – and the president has now signed - a bill to set aside what will be a new three-digit suicide prevention hotline – 988. It is supposed to launch in July of next year.
As of now, callers to the nationwide suicide prevention hotline need to dial a toll-free 800-number. At the call center in Greenville, South Carolina, calls come in from all over the state.
At Mental Health America, in Greenville, South Carolina, inside executive director Jennifer Piver's office, there is a quilt. Each life depicted on it has been lost to suicide.
Posted at 5:02 PM, Aug 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-08-11 17:02:37-04

GREENVILLE, S.C. — Inside Jennifer Piver’s office lies a quilt of loss.

“It's such a treatable illness, mental illnesses,” she said.

Every life depicted on that quilt has been lost to suicide.

“There's so much stigma and fear and it doesn't need to be that way,” she said. “We can do better.”

Piver is executive director of Mental Health America in Greenville, South Carolina. Just a few steps from her office sits the heartbeat of the suicide prevention hotline, a massive phone bank with staff at the ready to answer incoming calls.

“We have seen an increase in calls, particularly with our youth,” Piver said. “We're already at more calls this year than we took all of last year.”

As of now, callers to the national suicide prevention hotline need to dial a toll-free 800-number.

“That's where all those calls get answered,” Piver said. “It's by people who care and who are trained and who want to be there for people through life struggles.”

To simplify calling for help, last year, Congress passed--and the president has now signed-- a bill to set aside what will be a new three-digit suicide prevention hotline – 988. It is supposed to launch in July of next year, but there’s an issue.

“It will probably require many years of investment by local, state and federal governments, potentially philanthropy, to really put together a system that that is responsive,” said Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

Ingoglia said, similar to what happened when 911 was established in the 1960s, getting 988 up and running smoothly will take time and money.

“The way the lifeline works right now is that there are lifeline centers in every state, but then there are a few centers that are available to take excess call volume if local centers aren't available,” Ingoglia said. “So, we need to make sure we have enough capacity to get calls answered in a timely way.”

The federal government, in part, left it up to states to figure out how to fund 988.

With less than a year before its official launch, only three states--Colorado, Nevada, and Washington--have passed legislation to fund 988 through cell phone user fees, similar to those for 911, according to The Kennedy Forum.

Virginia allows for limited user fees and Oregon set aside other state money for it. There’s pending legislation in four states California, Kentucky, New Jersey, and Massachusetts. Other states, like Utah, Illinois, and Indiana, passed a 988 bill with no user fees. Nebraska, Texas, Alabama, and New York are still studying how to fund it. Everywhere else, though, state legislators have not taken steps to fund 988.

In South Carolina, Jennifer Piver’s team has been relying on a one-year philanthropic grant for funding. She remains optimistic, though, that state legislators will find a more permanent 988 funding solution.

“We've had amazing conversations with legislators. Folks have come on tours. I think they're starting to understand the value of it,” she said. “And we hope to engage them in helping us find sustainable funding for the long haul.”

If you or somebody you know is struggling with suicidal thoughts, you can call the Nationwide Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Since the three-digit number isn’t up and running yet, you can call (800) 273-8255. You can also click here.