August calls from Missouri to new 988 crisis hotline up 34% from last year

With an increase in calls, it remains to be seen how the state will bolster funding to the hotline long-term

By: - September 23, 2022 9:00 am

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).

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.

If you or someone you know is struggling or in crisis, help is available. Call or text 988 or chat

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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Tessa Weinberg
Tessa Weinberg

Tessa Weinberg covered education, health care and the legislature with the Missouri Independent. She previously covered the Missouri statehouse for The Kansas City Star and The Columbia Missourian, where her reporting into social media use by the governor prompted an investigation by the Attorney General’s office. She also covered state government in Texas for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram.