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West Virginia taking steps to strengthen 988 crisis response system

Nadia Ramlagan

More households, workplaces, and schools are struggling with mental health crises, and a new report by the mental health advocacy group Inseparable highlights how West Virginia is handling 988 crisis hotline calls and responses.

Congress passed legislation in 2020 establishing 988 as a nationwide three digit number to access mental health crisis resources, and the number went live in 2022.

Christina Mullins, deputy secretary of mental health and substance use disorders with the West Virginia Department of Human Services, said West Virginia’s call center response rate is 90%, noting the state could make policy changes to continue strengthening its crisis infrastructure.

“We actually did some investments early on to help prepare a crisis line be ready for the 988, transition. And you can see from that 90% answer rate, that those investments are paying off and that our residents are getting their phone calls answered here in the state of West Virginia,” she explained.

According to reporting by the healthcare organization KFF, West Virginia’s age-adjusted suicide rate was higher than the national level in 2021. Suicide deaths have increased fastest among people of color, younger individuals, and people who live in rural areas.

Angela Kimball, chief advocacy officer with Inseparable, said states can build strong crisis response systems, but will need to look beyond Medicaid for funding. She said state legislators can take steps to bolster services, noting the consequences of not addressing the issue will result in people going without help, landing in jail and E.R.s, being hospitalized or worse.

“One in five fatal police shootings involve someone with mental illness. So too often we see really a tragic outcome when people don’t get the right help at a less severe level, we see a lot of people who end up in crowded emergency departments,” she said.

The report says additional funding opportunities could come from a 988 telecoms surcharge to support crisis lines, which has already been implemented in a handful of states, and, utilizing a federal program under the American Rescue Plan that allows states to receive extra funding for mobile response services for three years.