BOSTON (State House News Service) - A confidential texting hotline for young people in need of support reported resounding success after its first full year in operation, but after Gov. Maura Healey proposed dropping state funding for the new lifeline, one senator said advocates need to "dig deep and push hard" to pack the $1 million back into the budget this spring.
"Hey Sam," a free text-message service for people up to 24 years old, launched in March 2022 and saw nearly 1,000 young people reach out over the past year for conversations that averaged 53 minutes in length. Their reasons are diverse, advocates said, ranging from imminent risk of suicide to stress from exams or college applications.
The program's operator, Boston-based Samaritans, Inc., is already planning to expand its hours this spring to make the service available until midnight every night. The line currently closes at 9 p.m., and Samaritans CEO Kathleen Marchi said "we know that we're missing conversations ... at the very end of the day."
Sen. Becca Rausch lauded the program's "truly phenomenal success rates" at a briefing Tuesday, and said she heard from constituents that "one of its most attractive features" is the fact it's peer-to-peer, connecting youths in crisis with support from trained people in their own age group when they text 439-726.
That alleviates a concern from the kids who seek help, the Needham Democrat said, about whether the person on the other end of the line will understand "what they're going through as a young person in today's world."
Samaritans reported that over the course of its first year, Hey Sam text conversations resulted in a 100 percent successful de-escalation rate.
"What that means is that young people who call us who are at a high risk for suicide are able to safety-plan with our support and not need emergency services called. So we're very, very proud of that, and we hope that we can claim that statistic for as long as possible," Marchi said. She added that "additional funding and ongoing funding would help us to expand our hours."
"Simply put," Rausch told lawmakers and staff, "Hey Sam is saving young people's lives."
A line item in the state budget to aid Samaritans' suicide prevention work (4513-1027) stood at $400,000, Rausch said, before it was boosted to $1.4 million for fiscal 2023 to aid the full implementation of Hey Sam.
In Healey's fiscal 2024 budget bill, the governor proposes dropping Samaritans' state funding back to $400,000, with the note, "Eliminated FY23 one-time costs."
"State funding is critical," Marchi said. "We've had support for more than five years and it is significant to us that our services continue to be free and accessible to everyone. It helped us launch Hey Sam, it will help us continue Hey Sam, and so we hope we have support for our programs in the FY24 budget."
Rausch said that "all of us in this room and beyond need to dig deep and push hard for the Legislature to renew that funding."
Samaritans also answers suicide prevention calls for people of all ages at 9-8-8, a national lifeline number, and Marchi said she wanted to dispel a common misconception that only people at imminent risk call that number.
"Lots of people reach out to us who are lonely, who are despairing, who are struggling, who need someone to talk to, who need a nonjudgmental listening ear. We hear from a lot of folks like that, every single day," she said.
Among its other programs, Samaritans offers grief support services for people who have lost a loved one to suicide, and puts on educational workshops around the state. Marchi extended an invitation to lawmakers to partner with their offices in holding district outreach events.
Speakers at the briefing noted that constituents in crisis often turn to lawmakers' offices for help, and Rep. Ted Philips said that Samaritans can be a valuable resource.
Philips said those calls often come in on Friday afternoons "when half of the workforce in Massachusetts seems to have gone home for the weekend, and we have to scramble to get someone on the phone who might be able to do something for a constituent in crisis."
"The risk of burnout here is very real, and has to be both acknowledged and addressed for us to be the most effective resources that we can be to the people that sent us here on their behalf," Philips said of the constituent services work. "Fortunately, we have Samaritans, Inc."
Written By Sam Doran/SHNS