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988 suicide hotlines answer rates are up in some Western states, but gaps remain

Suicide prevention sign on the east sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.
Guillaume Paumier
Wikimedia Commons
Suicide prevention sign on the east sidewalk of the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.

The 988 suicide hotline has offered 24/7 crisis care to callers nationwide for almost two years, but answer rates still vary widely in the West.

In Wyoming, answer rates for the three-digit hotline hovered at 90% last year, according to a new report from mental health group Inseparable.

Angela Kimball, chief advocacy director for Inseparable, said that number nearly doubled in the past few years. The organization lists 90% as its target response rate.

“There's been significant progress in the state and that's really something to be proud of,” Kimball said.

988 rollout is uneven

Utah, New Mexico and Idaho’s answer rates also hover around 90%, but answer rates in other states aren’t keeping up. The rate was 75% in Colorado, and Nevada’s 68% was the lowest in the region.

Kimball said these low numbers could be due to inadequate funding and staffing. Some call centers also have to respond to other crises, like human trafficking.

“If a call center is stretched too thin, it’s going to impact how rapidly they're able to respond to calls that come to them and whether they can respond at all,” Kimball said.

Keeping 988 financially sustainable

Inseparable is encouraging states to implement phone surcharges to boost funding for the mental health crisis hotline. Coincidentally, Colorado and Nevada are the only states in the region to implement such a fee. Kimball said similar surcharges already exist for 911 calls.

“Every cell phone bill in this country has a 911 phone surcharge,” she said. “That helps cover the costs of running emergency dispatch centers.”

Kimball said implementing these fees could help also make suicide hotlines more financially sustainable.

In Wyoming, state lawmakers put $10 million toward the service earlier this year, but some worry those funds could quickly dry up. Kimball said revenue from phone surcharges could help fill the gap.

Ensuring an effective crisis response

The next step after establishing effective call centers is making sure there are mobile teams to respond and places for people to go when in crisis — which can be difficult in rural states, Kimball said.

“I think in a state like Wyoming that has vast frontier areas, there are very real challenges with developing mobile crisis services and crisis, you know, stabilization facilities that can serve people no matter where they live in the state,” she said.

Some rural states have found solutions to these barriers. Oklahoma, for example, has equipped rural law enforcement officers with iPads, so residents can connect with trained mental health professionals virtually.

Kimball added: “We think that holds a lot of promise for states like Montana and Wyoming who are also exploring how can they really develop the crisis services that are going to help people get on that path of recovery.”

If you or someone you know is having suicidal thoughts, you can call or text the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.

This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Nevada Public Radio (KNPR) in Las Vegas, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUNR in Nevada, KUNC in Colorado and KANW in New Mexico, with support from affiliate stations across the region. Funding for the Mountain West News Bureau is provided in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Hanna is the Mountain West News Bureau reporter based in Teton County.