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West Virginia-based mental health service sees increase in calls to emotional strength line

A West Virginia-based mental health service launched an emotional strength line last year to help West Virginians facing mental health challenges, including stress and emotional fatigue.

First Choice Services implemented the HELP304 line in August 2020. Since then, hundreds of West Virginians have called the strength line for help. 200 people used the line in the month of March alone.

First Choice Services Director of Marketing and Communication Sheila Moran said that the organization has been around for about 20 years. Its mission is to make healthcare, particularly behavioral healthcare, easier to access for people. The organization started with the intention to focus on making such healthcare more accessible for West Virginians, but it has since expanded its efforts nationwide.

Moran said the HELP304 strength line was afforded through a Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) grant.

“You think of FEMA as the earthquake, hurricane folks, but COVID was declared a disaster, so we were given funds to begin an emotional support line,” she said.

She said that prior to the FEMA grant and the subsequent establishment of the HELP304 line, the state of West Virginia did not have such a program even though most other states did.

While First Choice Services did previously offer other strength lines, those lines referred to specific services: a few lines were created to help individuals with gambling addictions, others were designated for individuals struggling with drug addiction or alcoholism and there are lines for those struggling with tobacco usage or those who have concerns about health insurance.

The HELP304 line is a unique feature of First Choice Services because it was designed to provide immediate crisis counseling to callers. The line is free, anonymous and available 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Individuals in need of help have the option to call the strength line or chat with a counselor online. Moran said most people who call the strength line are typically struggling with a particular issue or stressor, ranging from relationship problems to panic attacks, while some are simply searching for a nonjudgmental person that is willing to listen.

First Choice Services also answers the Suicide Prevent Lifeline for people who call it from within West Virginia, so the staff that answer both the Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the HELP304 line have undergone Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST). So, First Choice Services staff members are equipped to handle calls during which the caller expresses suicidal thoughts or ideation.

“Most of the people who call us, we’re able to just talk them through what’s going on with them and if it’s emergency certainly we can activate emergency services,” Moran said.

She said that since the HELP304 strength line was implemented, she believes the line has been helpful to many West Virginians.

It was a slow process for First Choice Services to get the word out about the new strength line, but once it picked up, the organization began to receive more calls to the line. Moran said last month the line received 200 calls, which is the most its ever had in a single month.

“That might be because more people are finally hearing about us, or it might be because even though it’s the end of the pandemic, a lot of people are still facing a lot of stress, even almost a post-traumatic stress from the things they’ve dealt with – the financial strain, loss of loved ones…the issues with people who have had COVID and then even weeks or months later are dealing with mental health or neurological issues. So, even if you have it and you get over it, it may not be the end,” Moran said.

Moran said she believes the strength line will continue to be busy even after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed.

“Most people just want to talk, and it’s breaking down a barrier to mental health that they can call anonymously, that it’s free, it’s private. We don’t ask about their insurance, anything like that,” she said.

Concern for the mental health of college students recently prompted HELP304 to add a free weekly support group just for college students. Those online support group meetings are managed by a mental health clinician. Attendance is confidential and attendees do not even disclose their names to the group.

Moran said First Choice Services already offered a free weekly support group to all West Virginians, but the idea for the college student support group came about through discussions with higher education employees and college counselors who said that they have witnessed an increase in mental health issues among students.

“We thought this might be a nice thing to do, to give college students a way to not just talk to one of us, but to talk to other people who have been there and are having similar struggles as them,” she said.

Moran said the college student support group is currently being conducted through the Zoom telecommunications platform and will likely continue to be conducted that way even after the COVID-19 pandemic to facilitate statewide participation.

Moran is hopeful that the college student support group will see the same level of participation that the HELP304 line has.

The first meeting of the college student support group was held April 22 at 6 p.m. Participation was limited, but additional sessions are planned.

First Choice Services and its strength lines are operated in Charleston, but its services are available for use statewide.  

Those interested in participating in future college student support meetings can call 1-877-HELP304, text 1-877-4357-304, email or visit HELP304’s website for more information on accessing those meetings.

The HELP304 emotional strength line can be reached by calling 1-877-4357-304 and the chat function is accessible on HELP304’s website.

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