Thousands of Minnesotans who are suicidal, or in need of mental health help, dial one phone number to talk to counselors for free.

But now the local program that operates a statewide mental health phone service is preparing to cut back its services or shut down entirely unless the Legislature approves new funding.

“We really need stable, continuous ongoing funding for this,” said Matt Eastwood, CEO of Canvas Health, a nonprofit that operates Crisis Connection. “We believe it’s a public safety, a public health issue.”

Crisis Connection, which includes the phone line and the TXT4Life suicide prevention text program, is “run on a shoestring” budget of nearly $2 million and loses as much as $300,000 a year, Eastwood said.

That’s why they’ve asked legislators for $1.3 million for the phone line. So far, the preliminary omnibus budget bill includes nothing for it.

“We don’t want to walk away from this,” he said.

The bill does include $657,000 for one year to expand TXT4Life, a six-year-old outstate program where counselors respond to text messages for help, to the metro area. It already fields some 11,000 texts a year from people in 54 counties and tribal nations, and also provides educators for suicide prevention discussions in the schools.

The funding crunch comes as the suicide rate is rising in Minnesota. The number of suicides increased by 6 percent in 2015, reaching the highest level since the state began tracking them in the early 1900s.

‘It would save lives’

Crisis Connection received $1.26 million this year from the state, with all but $133,000 of that going to the text program. The remainder of its $2 million budget is paid for with county contracts and fundraising.

From a Richfield call center, Crisis Connection counselors answer phone calls from across the state routed through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, along with the Minnesota Gambling Helpline and Sowing Seeds of Hope rural line. They get 35,000 to 50,000 calls a year. They also respond to three text lines, the University of Minnesota Crisis Text Line and Minnesota Gambling Text Line.

Lack of new state funding could result in services either cut back or eliminated completely, Eastwood said, sending calls from the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to a call center in another state. Other calls either would be picked up by another vendor or just go unanswered.

“It became a call center for the whole state,” he said. “[Callers] want someone to help them stay safe. They want to know what to do.”

While many Minnesotans likely haven’t heard of Crisis Connection, the phone number to call for help is circulated widely among therapists and mental health clinics. The program employs 26 full-time staffers and gets help from 100 volunteers.

This isn’t the first time the 50-year-old phone service has faced tough times. In 2010, the program faced financial troubles when fundraising didn’t keep up with demand. That’s when Canvas Health picked it up.

But now the nonprofit faces the same issues.

“I think it would be problematic to just go away,” said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness Minnesota. “It’s a service of the community.”

Abderholden said no one knows how to sustain the service in the long-term, although the state is exploring the creation of a single metrowide crisis number like Crisis Connection’s.

Without mental health crisis lines, more people likely would rely on police and emergency responders. Across Minnesota, police are already responding to a rise in mental health calls.

So are paramedics like Nate Hart with Lakeview Emergency Medical Services in Stillwater. He said he responds to mental health crisis calls every day. After responding to suicides and losing a colleague, Sean Shevik, to suicide, he said that more mental health help is needed.

Hart refers people to Crisis Connection, but he said by then it’s often too late in the crisis and the person seeking help needs to go to the hospital. Either that, or paramedics are responding to a suicide.

“I would guarantee it would save lives,” he said of Crisis Connection.