A 14-year-old girl calls the WV Suicide Lifeline in the middle of the night. She has been cutting herself, and tonight she’s thinking of going further. She remembers she promised her school counselor she’d call the number he gave her if she ever felt this way. She dials, and it rings, and rings, and finally after 5 rings, she gets a message saying someone will be with her soon. Over the next six minutes, she hears that same message over and over, and she hangs up. Will she become one of the hundreds of West Virginians who die by suicide each year? In West Virginia, about one person a day ends their life by suicide. This is why schools across the state have posters with the hotline number. This is why anyone trying to reach their therapist or psychiatrist after-hours likely hears a message telling them to call this hotline if they are thinking of suicide.
Advocates for West Virginia’s suicide lifeline say the lengthy wait for help isn’t the reality yet, but if Senate Bill 181 doesn’t pass, it could be. The bill, which will provide funding for West Virginia’s suicide lifeline, is currently stalled in the Senate Finance Committee over a proposed 11 cent fee. Lata Menon, CEO of First Choice Services, the Charleston-based company that operates the lifeline commented, “We hoped the 11 cents would be seen as a reasonable amount, especially in the context of saving lives.” When asked if there were alternatives to the fee, Menon said that the Senate could choose to pass Senate Bill 181 without the fee but with the state’s commitment to fund the program. “Ultimately, we just want to be able to answer calls quickly so we can help those in need, and it is going to take additional funding to do so,” said Menon.
Calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from West Virginia are steadily increasing. Between 2018 and 2021, call volume in the state rose by 63%. New changes will boost the calls even more. In July 2022, a new national phone number, 988, will be implemented nationwide to facilitate quick access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The scope of the line will additionally be marketed not only as a number for those in suicidal crisis but also for anyone experiencing mental health distress or crisis. The easily recalled number, the broader scope of the line, the accessibility via chat and text, and a national marketing campaign are factors that will increase the volume of Lifeline contacts throughout the country. Vibrant Emotional Health, the administrator for the national hotline, estimates the number of West Virginians seeking Lifeline help may exceed 30,000 annually, three times the current volume.
Menon expressed concern that, without the additional funding, her staff won’t be able to keep up with the incoming calls. Callers may be transferred to an out-of-state answering service, a process that takes more than five minutes. She said the long waits can have a deterrent effect as many won’t hold the line that long. Additionally, she expressed concern that out-of-state agencies are unaware of the resources available in West Virginia. She said, “Senate Bill 181 gives us the tools we need to quickly connect with West Virginians in crisis and provide them with immediate help.”
Anyone feeling depressed, suicidal, or needing emotional support can reach the National Suicide Lifeline 24/7 at 1-800-273-TALK.