Minnesota suicide crisis hotline needs funding, or it will close in May
ST. PAUL—Kari Bristol's 12-year-old former foster daughter was teased at school for her disabilities. She had a bad day, and nothing Bristol said could help.
Usually, they could go on a bike ride or to McDonald's for a treat. But this day, nothing worked.
The girl said she wanted to kill herself. She was scratching her arm with a pencil.
That Friday evening in May, they called Crisis Connection, a round-the-clock telephone service that connects people in crisis with counselors and other resources. A counselor was sent out to their home in Hugo.
"She got back on track and was OK going to school on Monday," Bristol said.
Crisis Connection is the only center in Minnesota taking calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, and it will be forced to start shutting down May 21 unless it gets funding help.
The service, set in Richfield, is owned and operated by Oakdale-based Canvas Health, a nonprofit community mental health agency. It would take at least $969,000 annually to keep it operating, said Crisis Connection Manager Laura Weber.
Several legislators are sponsoring a pair of bills at the Capitol that would fund programs like Crisis Connection. Though the bills (one in the House and another in the Senate) are still active from last session, no vote beyond committees has been scheduled, said Canvas Health CEO Matt Eastwood.
"We've had great bipartisan support on this bill," Eastwood said. "We just haven't been able to get this out in front of everyone to get them to vote."
Eastwood has also talked to Minnesota legislators who assume Crisis Connection is funded by the state, and who are surprised to learn that it isn't.
An increase in demand
Crisis Connection has linked Minnesotans with local psychiatrists and counselors as well as first-responders and emergency rooms since 1969. With no consistent funding source, it has survived with the help of fundraisers and contracts.
In 2017, the agency served more than 52,000 callers from across Minnesota.
In 2017, the number of calls redirected from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline went up 40 percent from 2016, due largely to the increase in demand for mental health services in rural Minnesota.
Mental health therapists also often refer clients to Crisis Connection for after-hours counseling. The phone numbers are also posted on websites, bulletin boards, and in thousands of schools, mental health clinics and other public and community organizations.
Bristol's former foster daughter had that number posted on her wall at home and at school. If Crisis Connection didn't exist, Bristol would have had to call 911.
"Police would have come out and tried to assess her or take her to the hospital," Bristol said. "It would have been a lot more traumatic for her and for my family."
Crisis Connection has 13 contracts— including one with the state Department of Agriculture for a dedicated hotline for struggling farmers—but more than 800 clinical practices list Crisis Connection's phone number on their websites, according to Eastwood.
If they had 800 contracts, they wouldn't need to ask for money from the government — but they can't force providers to pay them if they post their service on their website, he adds.
"At some point, (Crisis Connection) shifted from being a private enterprise to serving the whole state, that has no way to cover its cost," Eastwood said.
Temporary fix last year
This is not the first time the hotline has faced turmoil. It was set to close in July because of the funding issues, but a $139,000 grant from the Minnesota Department of Health became a temporary reprieve.
Minnesota Health Commissioner Ed Ehlinger said the agency was concerned about losing a life-saving resource, particularly with Minnesota facing historically high suicide rates and an opioid addiction crisis.
"This is not a permanent fix, but it will keep the suicide-prevention line open for people in crisis and provide time to find a lasting solution," Ehlinger said in a statement at the time.
The grant, which came from federal funds for suicide prevention, was issued after a flood of media attention. But now the grant is running out.
Many states have more centers
Crisis Connection is the only crisis center in Minnesota that is accredited and takes calls from the national lifeline.
People might expect larger states to have more National Suicide Prevention Lifeline crisis centers — California has 12. But even states with populations comparable to Minnesota have more accredited crisis centers.
With one call center, Eastwood says Minnesota's model is actually the most cost-effective.
"It absolutely makes more sense to consolidate in a single, certified call center so you get continuity across the entire state," Eastwood said. "That way, you're not paying for (administration) and overhead in five different locations."
But what if it closes?
If the center is forced to close, people in need could still call National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK and reach a counselor. But they would likely be routed to a counselor in another state accepting overflow calls, which could result in longer wait times and limited access to Minnesota resources.
And, if Crisis Connection closes and people try to call their current number — 612-379-6363 — there might be no one there to answer.
"If someone is suicidal and calls a number and no one answers, they're not likely to call again," Weber said. "That's a dangerous thing. And for me, that's a sad situation for Minnesota."
Eastwood echoed that concern.
"Staff and volunteers save lives every day and every week," he said. "So far, nobody has been able to tell me where those 52,000 phone calls will go if we're not here."
'It touches all of us'
Eastwood has three family members and friends who died from suicide.
"It touches all of us," Eastwood said.
Monica Shevik lost her son Sean to suicide, on Dec. 26, 2013. She testified multiple times before the Legislature in hopes of finding funding for Crisis Connection.
Shevik recognizes that her son was in pain and despair the day he died. But she knows he wanted to live.
"He wanted his pain and suffering to end. And the only choice he thought he had at that moment in time was death," Shevik said. "Those moments in time are where help like Crisis Connection comes into play."
Allison Offerman lost her father to suicide in 2012.
"You don't really know the value of something like this until you're in a crisis and you need it," Offerman said.
Offerman decided to offer her skills and background in psychology and become a volunteer counselor.
"I could help them be connected with resources so they could make a different decision than my father," Offerman said.
Eastman is hopeful.
"That's part of what we're trying to do, to bring hope and healing to people," Eastwood said.
How to help
For information on volunteering with or donating to Crisis Connection, go online to www.canvashealth.org.
• If you are experiencing a mental health crisis right now, call 612-379-6363 to reach Crisis Connection.
• Qualified counselors will respond to any problem 24 hours a day, 365 days a year by phone or text.
• You can text "Life" to 61222 to connect with a trained counselor through TXT4Life, a suicide prevention resource for Minnesota residents.
• Calls and texts are free and confidential.