A year after 988 suicide and crisis hotline launched, Ohio has set aside funding for it
Almost a year after the launch of 988 as a national lifeline for people in crisis and considering suicide, the state has set aside money to keep the hotline running for at least the next two years. The money will go to call centers and training, but also to a new program.
The Federal Communications Commission mandated a move to the easy to remember 988 as the national suicide and crisis line last July, and funded it for states for a year.
The new two-year budget sets aside $46 million for 988, and there’s a bill to create a dedicated fund for the 988 hotline.
Ohio Mental Health and Addiction Services director Lori Criss said Ohio operators have handled hundreds of thousands of calls, texts and chats since then.
“Over 12,000 calls, chats and texts from Ohioans are being answered each month. And these are people from every county in Ohio that are calling," Criss said. "And this is occurring without a major push of a statewide or national marketing campaign.”
Criss said the lack of a marketing campaign was deliberate, to ensure that the call centers time to ensure they could handle a high volume of calls. But by the end of the year, Ohio will launch that campaign, and Criss estimates that monthly number could climb to 14,000.
Over the year, Ohio went from 12 call centers to 19. And those call centers have been very responsive, said the state's 988 administrator, Doug Jackson.
"Ohio has a 19-second speed answer rate that compares to the national average of 35 seconds," Jackson said. He noted calls are on a regional and statewide routing system which is connected to the national network, which makes sure calls are answered. "With our call center redundancies, only about 2% of calls are rolling out of Ohio to a national call center. "
The work can be stressful. Operators go through a training curriculum, and Jackson said there are support opportunities to help operators after calls, which can be difficult, emotionally charged and fragile.
Rick Baumann started volunteering with suicide prevention 30 years ago to better understand his son’s mental illness. His son died by suicide in 2007. Baumann now helps coordinate the suicide prevention program at North Central Mental Health Services in Columbus.
“What helps me deal with the loss of my son is being able and I know I've helped other people and I'm not bragging about that. I just know I have because what we do on that line is we sell hope. We're hope salesmen," Baumann said.
Criss said while there are workforce shortages in behavioral health care, "the call centers are doing very well. We have very specific recruitment and retention efforts with them to support them." She added the 988 hotline isn't being impacted by a workforce shortage.
Only a few states have settled on how to fund the 988 hotline, and some have only one call center. Some states are relying on fees on phone lines to fund their programs, which was an idea advocates had suggested Ohio lawmakers consider.
A bill has been proposed by Rep. Gail Pavliga (R-Portage County) and Rep. Adam Miller (D-Columbus) that will establish the 988 administrator position in law and create a dedicated 988 fund that the state will fund. House Bill 231 has co-sponsors from both parties.
1,766 Ohioans died by suicide in 2021, the last year for which numbers are available. That was an increase after a two-year decline.