Opinion editor's note: Editorials represent the opinions of the Star Tribune Editorial Board, which operates independently from the newsroom.
The new 988 mental health crisis line is delivering. Given an easy-to-remember set of digits to dial, Minnesotans are reaching out for help and getting it.
"The new 24-hour hotline has received over 30,000 calls, texts and chat messages since it was launched last July. That far exceeds inquiries to the old 10-digit suicide hotline," the Star Tribune reported earlier this month. "Statewide, monthly call volumes have increased 31%, while texts have soared more than 500% ... ."
Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death across the nation and the second among young people, according to Mental Health Minnesota, a nonprofit advocacy group. A connection during a crisis can be the difference between life and death. State lawmakers have an essential role to play. Ongoing funding is necessary to ensure far into the future that calls and requests for help to 988 are answered promptly.
Federal dollars helped establish and launch the new 988 system. But Congress has also strongly signaled that state investment will be necessary. The 2020 legislation authorizing the switch to a 3-digit number allows states to levy modest new telecommunications fees to fund the crisis line.
This is the same funding mechanism that supports 911 operations. That fee varies by state, but it's 95 cents a month in Minnesota. It's logical to rely on the same strategy for 988.
Lawmakers have fortunately teed up legislation (HF 1566/SF 2588) to do this. The bills propose an even more modest fee — 12-25 cents a month — beginning in 2024 for mobile phones and landlines. The bill would also appropriate $12 million in state funds over the next two years to fund the fledgling 988 service and build capacity.
Every legislative session has a crowded agenda, but the surging 988 calls indicate the need. The Star Tribune Editorial Board has previously called for the small state surcharge to fund 988 and again urges lawmakers to pass the legislation expediently.
Call center administrators also told the Star Tribune that steady state funding would enable more follow-up — for callers who consent — after someone reaches out. Research indicates that later intervention plays a vital role in preventing suicides. "The majority of interviewed follow-up clients reported that the intervention stopped them from killing themselves (79.6%) and kept them safe (90.6%)," according to a 2018 medical journal article.
The 988 line is a pragmatic response to the nation's considerable mental health challenges. Establishing ongoing funding for it should be an easy call at the State Capitol.