Leslie Martin, a 63-year-old woman from Mendota Heights, found herself in a dark place after slipping and falling down her basement stairs. She injured her shoulder, which gave her problems for years afterward. Her lifelong battle with severe depression didn’t help when the old injury kept re-tearing, forcing her to take time off her retail job and lose income.
When the pain got so bad that she was forced to seek treatment in 2016, her clinic couldn’t schedule her for an MRI without prior approval from her insurance. Overwhelmed with the dead-end sensation of being a burden on her family, Martin sat in her car in the parking lot and sobbed. A voice was telling her the world would be better off without her.
Martin ended up calling Crisis Connection, the suicide hotline that her therapist left in his voicemail. A counselor on the other end stayed with her while notifying her husband and the clinic’s patient services manager, who met Martin at her car to talk everything out.
Looking back, Martin says she may not have survived without Crisis Connection, Minnesota’s sole crisis hotline, which is currently at risk of shutting down this summer if the legislature can’t find funding to keep it open.
“I’m wondering what would happen if someone tried calling Crisis Connections. Presumably they would get that horrible tone with a voice saying the number you dialed is no longer working,” Martin says.
“Some people might call 911, others might not. I didn’t want ambulances and police cars showing up with sirens and lights flashing. That’s not what most people want or need when they’re in crisis.”
Crisis Connections’ number is listed by government health agencies, hospitals, and mental health clinics the state over as the primary contact for people on the brink of suicide. For about 50 years, its counselors have answered tens of thousands of calls annually, linking Minnesotans to emergency responders near them.
The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline doesn’t compare. Its counselors are located out of state, and don’t know local resources the way Crisis Connection does.
But with time, demand has outstripped their resources, and the call center loses about $300,000 a year. (Last year was a relative success, as it came up short just $67,000.)
As Crisis Connection became firmly established as the alternative to calling 911, large hospital groups and even counties began posting its number on their websites, assuming the state was paying for it when the call center actually sustains itself through contracts with health providers.
Meanwhile, in 2017 the center took 40 percent more calls re-directed from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline than the year before – a dramatic increase that reflects the mental health crisis in Minnesota’s rural communities, where farmers and ranchers have seen their commodity prices flat-line while their cost of business keeps going up.
Last year Crisis Connection went to the state legislature for survival money. CEO Matt Eastwood presented his case to the committees and funds were included in the omnibus bill, only to be slashed before final approval.
The call center seemed doomed to close within a week of that decision, when media coverage suddenly produced a flood of private donations, and the governor’s office and the Department of Health finally scrounged up enough unexpended federal dollars as bridge funding to get Crisis Connection to this legislative session.
Now Republican legislators in both chambers have authored bills (HF501 and SF776) to provide sustainable funding. The legislation calls for $969,000, or 17 cents per resident of Minnesota per year.
Eastwood says he’s hopeful that legislators will understand the significance of the state’s mental health safety net. If Crisis Connections isn’t funded this year, he’ll have to close down the service by the end of August. An additional stressor is that the center’s building in Richfield has been sold to an auto dealership, and he can’t ask foundations for their support with moving costs until it’s clear that the state will secure long-term funding.
“Our question to the state is, ‘Where do you want us to send them?’ They’re going to continue to come,” Eastwood says. “Our concern is that it will just put a greater burden on law enforcement. People will show up at hospital emergency rooms at greater numbers. And as we know, law enforcement is already being asked to do too much work in mental health, and our hospital emergency departments are overcrowded. There’s not another crisis call center that can step up and take this.”