Suicide crisis hotline in jeopardy as Minnesota legislators withhold funds

Minnesota's only suicide prevention hotline may not survive if legislators deny funding this year.

Minnesota's only suicide prevention hotline may not survive if legislators deny funding this year. Sascha Kohlmann

The nonprofit Canvas Health runs the only crisis hotline based in Minnesota. Every year, its counselors answer more than 45,000 calls and texts from Minnesotans in desperate situations, including people on the verge of suicide.

When that happens, a counselor will keep callers calm and connected to the line while a team of mental health responders are dispatched to save them.

Without this hotline, Minnesotans could still rely on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number. But because Canvas Health is the only call center that answers the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in the state of Minnesota, they would be routed to counselors in another state, who are not as familiar with local emergency resources.

Canvas requires about $1.3 million a year to operate its 50-year-old hotline. Funds are currently pieced together from various county contracts and private fundraising, but those efforts have never been enough. Every year, the hotline loses about $300,000.

The state has never stepped in to help before. But this year, bipartisan bills propose allocating state funds to the hotline for the first time. If passed, Canvas would receive $1.3 million for its telephone service and about $650,000 to expand its texting service statewide.

This would stabilize the program and secure its continued existence, but it looks as though lawmakers may withhold funds after all.

In the House, the bill was added to the omnibus budget bill, but only after omitting the $1.3 million for the telephone service. Funding for expanding the texting program remained, but would be just a one-time grant. In the Senate, there's no money provided for either service.

"Even with these contracts and considerable fundraising efforts, the voice response service still operates with an unsustainable loss," says Thomas Ruter, COO of Canvas Health.

"Without the funding that was proposed to the legislature, we anticipate that an estimated 35,000 to 50,000 callers would have to find another alternative, possibly being directed to the already overburdened 911 departments, hospital emergency departments, and mobile crisis teams. We know that this service has been a lifeline of hope to each caller that has utilized it."