CHARLESTON, W.Va. — A celebration of hope is how Lata Menon, the CEO of First Choice Services is describing the upcoming launch of West Virginia’s 9-8-8 Crisis and Suicide Lifeline.
Ahead of the 9-8-8 number launching nationwide Saturday, mental health leaders and advocates gathered Friday at First Choice Services in Charleston for a kickoff event.
Cindy Stagg, the West Virginia Chapter Chair for American Foundation for Suicide Prevention was in attendance and said that while the 1-800-273-TALK number will remain in service, the launch of 9-8-8 will be life-altering. She said it’s easier to remember and will have quicker response times.
“When you have the 800-273-TALK number to try to remember if someone is in a crisis at that moment and you don’t remember that because you’re overwhelmed, you can lose. You can lose that impact,” Stagg said.
“Having 9-8-8 is just a game changer for mental health, advocacy and saving lives.”
Menon noted the work to the launch of 9-8-8 has been going on for several years. In April, Gov. Jim Justice signed Senate Bill 181 into law. The bill originated in response to the National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020, which designated the three-digit phone number 988 as the universal number for the National Suicide Prevention and Mental Health Crisis Hotline System.
West Virginians seeking support via the Lifeline can expect to have their calls answered by crisis counselors at First Choice Services, a nonprofit agency located in Charleston. Menon said it’s personal for the counselors and staff at First Choice Services because they are a second-chance employer.
Menon said many of the staff are in long-term recovery from substance abuse, are survivors of domestic violence, have lost loved ones to suicide, or have survived suicide attempts.
First Choice Services operates several behavioral health and social service helplines and programs through call, text or chat and serves over 115,000 people per year.
“Over the course of a conversation, often a long one, we help people sort through these thoughts and confusion. We help people identify some of the reasons they have to be here,” Menon said.
According to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention (AFSP), on average one person died by suicide every 22 hours in West Virginia in 2020. Suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in West Virginia and the second leading cause of death for individuals ages 10-34, AFSP stated.
In 2020, 395 West Virginians died by suicide, the eighth highest rate in the country, according to AFSP. Stagg said West Virginia leads the nation in suicide rate with firearms. She said her organization is working to bring additional gun safety advocacy to West Virginia.
“Numbers are still way too high,” she said.
First Choice Services has hired 30 new staff members for the suicide lifeline launch. The organization has also been awarded a national contract to act as a backup center for chats and texts to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Menon encouraged anyone interested in changing lives, to apply for a position on the organization’s website.
Anyone feeling depressed, suicidal, or needing emotional support can reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline 24/7 at 9-8-8 beginning Saturday or 1-800-273-TALK anytime.
On 7/16, 988 will be a universal entry point so that no matter where you live in the U.S., you can easily access 24/7 emotional support. In the meantime, please cont. to share 1-800-273-TALK (8255) to be connected w/ a trained, caring counselor. We’re here for you. #988Lifeline pic.twitter.com/B7n7I8F2AI
— 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline (@988Lifeline) July 13, 2022