Operators fielding calls for the new 988 National Suicide & Crisis Prevention Lifeline have one advantage from the get-go: If people call, they’re not ready to end their lives just yet.
“When they call us, they’re still sane [and asking] ‘What is my purpose?’” said Nicole Baysmore, an on-the-job trainer and former crisis worker for PRS CrisisLink in Oakton. “We try to de-escalate them.”
The United States on July 16 implemented the 988 National Suicide & Crisis Prevention Lifeline, which replaced a 10-digit number and may be accessed via calls, texts and chats (at 988lifeline.org).
The shorter, more easily memorizable number, combined with enhanced federal funding, will serve the public better, said local, state and federal officials July 22 at PRS CrisisLink.
“It’s not just a new number, it’s going to help people differently,” said Laura Clark, senior director for PRS CrisisLink.
Virginia in 2021, using legislation sponsored by state Sen. Jeremy McPike (D-Manassas), became the first U.S. state to charge a 988 service fee.
Since then, Colorado, Nevada and Washington have passed similar bills.
Virginia’s 988 revenues stood at $4.6 million during the program’s first year, but have grown to $9.2 million this year, said Heather Norton, an assistant commissioner with the Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services.
Panelists praised the Biden-Harris administration for increasing federal funding 18-fold for the lifeline, from $24 million to $432 million. The amount consists $177 million to improve and expand the lifeline’s existing network operations and telephone infrastructure; $105 million to enhance staffing at crisis centers in all 50 states and four U.S. territories; and $150 million from the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act passed by Congress in June.
PRS (Psychiatric Rehabilitation Services) is one of three crisis centers in Virginia that receive 988 calls; the others are Southside Survivor Response Center in Martinsville and Helping ACTS in Dumfries. PRS is the lead provider in the group and also serves as a backup call, chat and text center for the national 988 response, officials said.
PRS has been focusing on its workforce by investing in training and increasing crisis workers’ wages by 20 percent, said CEO Joseph Getch.
“It’s difficult work,” Getch said, noting that PRS’s part-time workforce has jumped from 100 to 250 in six months. “It’s hard to take those calls 40 hours per week.”
Job burnout for those workers is real, Baysmore said.
“We’re answering an array of different calls,” she said. “It’s been a very fulfilling and rewarding experience.”
The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMSHA) of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is the lead federal agency overseeing the lifeline. SAMSHA collaborates with the Federal Communications Commission and Department of Veterans Affair, which runs a linked Veterans Crisis Line.
According to U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention data, suicide in 2019 was the country’s second-leading cause of death for young people and 10th-leading cause of death overall. Since the pandemic began, the complexity and acuity of crises fielded by lifeline workers has risen and call times have increased, Clark said.
Financial woes are a common factor cited by callers and crisis workers attempt to direct them to available resources to lessen their strain, officials said.
“It’s a time of tension and high expectations,” Clark said. “My role is protecting our workforce and never forgetting who’s calling.”
“We’ve got to be dynamic and nimble,” McPike said. “We need to treat the mind like the heart.”