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Frontier Behavioral Health sees 50% increase in calls after debut of new suicide hotline

Ingrid Ulrey (right) talks with Frontier Behavioral Health Crisis Triage Specialists Kim Kesner (left) and Paxton Scarburgh (right) on Tuesday.  (Julien A. Luebbers/The Spokesman-Review)
Ingrid Ulrey (right) talks with Frontier Behavioral Health Crisis Triage Specialists Kim Kesner (left) and Paxton Scarburgh (right) on Tuesday. (Julien A. Luebbers/The Spokesman-Review)
By Julien A. Luebbers The Spokesman-Review

Following the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s transition to the streamlined 988 phone number on July 16, call centers across the nation saw a 45% increase in Lifeline calls, according to the Department of Health and Human Services.

Eastern Washington’s regional call center, operated by Frontier Behavioral Health, had a 50% increase.

The national increase in Lifeline calls is “really good news,” said Health and Human Services Regional Director Ingrid Ulrey. “The more people who call, the more people who are going to get the support and help they need to stabilize.”

Ulrey visited Spokane’s Frontier Behavioral Health call center on Tuesday to “hear firsthand the stories of the responders about how they’re catching people before they fall.”

The visit was part of a tour of behavioral health facilities, following up on the nationwide move to 988 as part of the federal government’s initiative to focus on mental and behavioral health.

According to Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services to the Biden-Harris administration, “the president’s budget proposes a historic investment in behavioral health, some $50 billion over the next 10 years.” Becerra made the remarks Tuesday during a meeting of the Western Governors Association in Coeur d’Alene.

Frontier is one of many organizations nationwide that have received increased funding .

“The movement in this country for an easy-to-remember three-digit number for the purposes of the suicide and crisis lifeline has been truly a national and inter-governmental effort, led nationally by HHS,” Ulrey said Tuesday.

According to Ulrey, the Biden-Harris administration and Beccera have had a “laser focus” on this issue since taking office. Funding for lifeline services has increased 18-fold to support 988, she added.

“There has been $282 million invested in crisis centers nationwide,” she said, and $105 million of that has been directed to states and territories to strengthen 988 call centers, including Frontier’s facility.

The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, which President Joe Biden signed into law on June 25, included an additional $150 million for 988 among its mental health funding and gun control laws.

Washington also set aside funds for the Native and Strong Lifeline, a resource directed at Indigenous callers, to be integrated into 988 in the near future.

The rapid increase in call volumes coincides with a labor shortage in behavioral health.

The Frontier center has been able to keep up with the uptick in call volume, “even though it’s challenging for recruitment and retention, and there’s vacancies,” said Ulrey, who met with Frontier CEO Jeff Thomas, COO Jan Tokumoto and others earlier Tuesday.

Increases in funding from the state and federal governments “have assisted with our ability to recruit and retain staff,” Thomas said a couple of weeks ago.

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