The number of Washington residents calling the state’s 988 suicide prevention hotline has climbed in the past year and is expected to keep rising, prompting Gov. Jay Inslee to request more money for the program.
Around 7,000 to 8,600 Washington residents a month have called the hotline in the past year, according to a November report from the state Department of Health and the Health Care Authority. Since the line launched in July 2022, calls are up 40%, texts 670% and chats 124% as more people have become aware of the services, the report says.
Calls totaled 8,616 in June 2023, the most recent month the report covers. Of those calls, 6,807 came in on the main line, 1,726 to a specialized Veterans Crisis Line and 83 to a Spanish-speaking line.
“These metrics show the need and demand for crisis services by people in Washington state,” the report said.
Suicide rates in the United States climbed to a record high in 2022, with nearly 50,000 Americans dying by suicide, according to preliminary data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The state Legislature passed bills in 2021 and 2023 to implement and expand the 988 hotline program and related services in Washington state. The 2021 bill, HB 1477, established a tax on phone lines to fund expanded behavioral health services.
Washington raised nearly $60 million through the phone line tax in fiscal years 2022-23. The state spent close to $15 million over that time running the 988 program.
The report cautions that spending is likely to accelerate as more people learn about the hotline.
Meanwhile, the state is planning to build a new technology platform to support the hotline. Inslee in a supplemental budget proposal released earlier this month called for $17.7 million for the IT project and another $3 million for other expenses to help handle the growing 988 workload.
The November report found that the majority of crisis calls and messages are still flowing through regional crisis lines and local providers.
“This is a trend that is expected to shift over time towards the 988 Lifeline,” the report said.
A media campaign to promote the 988 Lifeline will get underway in January, said a Department of Health spokesperson at a state crisis response steering committee meeting on Monday.
During the meeting, the primary sponsor of the 2023 bill to expand 988 services, Rep. Tina Orwall, D-Des Moines, said she plans on introducing legislation in the upcoming 2024 legislative session to support further 988 work.
The report also details efforts made to reach populations with higher suicide rates. In November 2022, the state launched the Native and Strong Lifeline, dedicated to connecting callers with Indigenous backgrounds to Native crisis specialists and counselors.
While there’s no data offered on the number of calls made to the Native and Strong Lifeline, the report cites the program’s counselors, who reported that “monthly call metrics have steadily increased.”
The national 988 administrator, Vibrant Emotional Health, has a partnership with The Trevor Project, which connects LGBTQ+ youth and young adults with crisis counselors who specialize in LGBTQ+ affirming care.
Washington State Department of Health data, the report said, show veterans, LGBTQ+ people, young people, rural residents and American Indian and Alaska Native communities all have an increased risk of suicide compared to the general population.