CHARLESTON, WV (WOWK) – The number of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline from West Virginians has increased in recent years, according to First Choice Services.

The organization says the call volume rose from 6,543 calls in 2018 to 10,691 calls in 2021, a 63% increase. The state’s rate of suicides, however, does not correspond with that increase, which First Choice Services CEO Lata Menon says may be because those at risk of self-harm are able to reach a crisis counselor.

First Choice Services is a company based in Charleston, West Virginia that provides Lifeline services for the Mountain State. The company operates several programs and helplines that make it easier to access and navigate healthcare, addiction services, and social services.

The company’s website says the more than 60 staff members “work around the clock” to help more than 50,000 people each year. However, Menon says they are concerned that a bill meant to make access to crisis assistance easier, could also hinder their ability to provide that help.

Congress unanimously enacted the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 to create the three-digit phone number, 988, which serves as a universal number for the National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Hotline System. the act also mandated that the number must be available nationwide by the deadline of July 16, 2022.

First Choice Services say the 988 number will help facilitate quick access to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the scope of the line will expand to include not only those in suicidal crisis, but also those experiencing mental health distress or crisis.

According to the company, the administrator for the national hotline, Vibrant Emotional Health, has estimated that the number of West Virginians seeking Lifeline help may increase to exceed 30,000 per year. Menon says that increase could make it more difficult for them to help those who need help through a crisis without additional staffing.

“We are heartened to know the changes will make access easier and offer help to many more people who are suffering, but we are concerned our current program will simply not be able to meet such high volume,” Menon said. “Without additional staff, help seekers will experience longer waits and eventually reach support out of our state. In suicide prevention, we know that every second counts. And we know that it works best when West Virginians respond to West Virginians.”

To fund the 988 line, Caungress authorized states to pass user fees on telephone lines, which is the same source that funds 911. First Choice Services says despite their staffing concerns, the number will be critical to preventing deats as well as stopping criminalization of mental illness.

The organization says several states have already passed legislation to ensure they are able to handle the needs of the state, but West Virginia has yet to pass any new legislation. However, Menon says a bill has been introduced in the West Virginia Legislature. Senate Bill 181 would help create long-term stability for the call center and its connection to regional crisis centers where those who need help can get evaluation and treatment.

“When you or your loved one is in crisis, instead of calling the police or going to an emergency room, you should be able to immediately reach a crisis counselor who has the training to provide needed support and referral. Senate Bill 181 will ensure that West Virginia’s Crisis Call Center is prepared to answere the need in our state,” Menon said.

If you or someone you know is considering suicide, please contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255), text “STRENGTH” to the Crisis Text Line 741-741 or go to suicidepreventionlifeline.org.