August calls from Missouri to 988 crisis hotline up 34% from 2021

At Burrell Behavioral Health, calls in the hotline’s first week increased 50%, with 198 calls from July 16-26 (Photo courtesy of Burrell Behavioral Health).

By TESSA WEINBERG
Missouri Independent

A revamped national hotline that aims
to aid people in a mental health crisis saw a 34% increase in calls
from Missouri in August from a year prior.

The National Suicide Prevention
Lifeline transitioned nationwide July 16 to the new three-digit 988
Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, which aims to assist callers in moments of
crisis and connect them with mental health resources at a time when
mental health issues have been on the rise, especially among young adults.

In August, the 988 hotline received
3,770 calls from Missouri, with 3,461 of those calls, or 92%, answered
in-state, according to figures provided by the Department of Mental
Health. That month, which contains the first full month of data since
the three-digit number was launched, there were also 756 texts and 807
chats from Missouri.

Missouri’s 988 hotline is operated by seven providers who previously reported an immediate increase in calls in the hotline’s first weeks of transition.
When those centers’ lines are busy, calls are routed to the national
call center, said Debra Walker, a spokeswoman for the department.

The hotline does not yet have
geolocation services, which would route a caller to the nearest call
center based on their location, like 911 does. Calls are currently sent
to the nearest call center based on a caller’s area code.

The increase in calls is evidence
that Missouri should continue to allocate funding for the hotline
long-term, said Rep. Patty Lewis, a Kansas City Democrat who serves on
the House Health and Mental Health Policy Committee and has passed legislation on mental health care.

“We see in every single corner —
rural, urban, Democrat, Republican — there’s a mental health crisis in
our state,” Lewis said, later adding: “We need to continue to support
this.”

While over $30 million in state and federal funds has been allocated to the hotline’s implementation in Missouri,
the state has yet to pass legislation authorized by Congress to add a
monthly fee to phone bills to help permanently fund the hotline and
crisis services — similar to how 911 call centers are funded.

So far, at least four states have enacted such fees, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, with the highest set to go into effect next year at $0.40 per line in Washington.

It remains to be seen if Missouri lawmakers will pursue that option come January when the annual legislative begins.

Sen. Lincoln Hough, a Springfield Republican who sponsored a bill to print the 988 hotline number on student ID cards, said he ultimately wants to ensure the resources will be there when callers reach out needing help.

“I’d like to see what it’s really
going to cost on the back end to make sure those services are there,”
said Hough, who is anticipated to be the chairman of the Senate
​​Appropriations Committee next year, “and then come up with the funding
mechanism.”

The increase in calls in Missouri echoes the gains seen nationally,
with 152,000 more contacts to the hotline, or a 45% increase in overall
volume in August 2022 compared to August 2021, according to figures
released by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services earlier
this month. Altogether, the hotline saw 361,140 calls, chats and texts
in August.

While calls have increased, the average wait time and abandonment rate in Missouri has declined, Walker said.

The average speed to answer a call in
Missouri after the hotline’s automated greeting is 33 seconds faster
than it was a year ago — down to 30 seconds from 1 minute and 3 seconds
in 2021, according to state figures.

“Missouri has significantly improved how quickly calls were answered,” Walker said.

The rate at which calls are abandoned
in Missouri before a counselor can answer decreased by 10%, going from
18% in 2021 to 8% in 2022, according to state figures. In August of last
year, Missouri’s call centers saw 543 abandoned calls compared to 290
in August of this year.

Calls may be disconnected for a
variety of reasons, such as if a person decides to end the call or if
the call is dropped due to technical issues.

Nationwide, the average speed to
answer across calls, chats and texts also decreased from 2 minutes and
30 seconds last year to 42 seconds, according to HHS, with 43,092, or 12%, of all contacts abandoned in August.

A New York Times analysis previously found that about 18% of the 1 million phone calls to the hotline in the first half of the year were abandoned.

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