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Beginning July 16, people in need of mental health care can call 988 to access counselors and response teams on the 24-hour Suicide Rescue Line. Calls will be redirected to the current number 1-800-273-8255, which will operate during and after the 988 extension.

The new number is intended to make it easier for those in crisis to reach those who can help, and the federal agency in charge of the hotline expects calls to double from 2020. With over 200 call centers now in place across the country already being depleted, mental health groups are concerned that 988 could run out of resources and lead to longer wait times and dropped calls. Those groups say that without more funding for the upcoming service, callers won’t get the help they need, and officials admit the hotline won’t be fully staffed when it goes live.

“While this is a watershed and an exciting opportunity to transform our current crisis care system into something that is not a one-size-fits-all model, but takes into account the life experiences and realities of many communities that are experiencing behavioral or mental health crises, we are a little concerned that the implementation may not be ready,” said Preston Mitcham, director of advocacy and government relations for The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth.

Bob Gebbia, CEO of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, told CNN that “a big concern is that demand could exceed capacity very quickly and these centers will be overwhelmed.”

“When this happens, calls get dropped, wait times increase, and people who are on the other end who are having trouble don’t get the connection they need,” Gebbia said.

Ready for a burst of use

States Prepare for Summer Launch of New Suicide Prevention Issue 988

In 2020, the phone line received 3.6 million calls, chats and text messages. After moving to 988, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration, an agency under the Department of Health and Human Services, expects case volume to double in this first year. 6 million, possibly up to 12 million.

Since the FCC approved the 988 number in 2020, the federal government and Vibrant Emotional Health’s phone line administrator have been preparing for nationwide rollout of the three-digit number by providing state grants to support call centers and actively trying to recruit more crisis counselors. (People who want to know more can visit www.samhsa.gov/find-help/988/jobs.)

The Biden administration provided $282 million for the 988 transition, including state and territory funding to improve responsiveness and ability to meet future demand. SAMHSA’s 2021 Appropriation Report to Congress reported that lifeline capacity was sufficient to handle approximately 85% of calls based on Vibrant’s internal data analysis as of December 2020, the most recent data available.

Dr. John Palmieri, acting director of the SAMHSA Coordinating Office for 988 Crisis and Behavioral Health, acknowledged to CNN that the states are currently in varying degrees of readiness, adding, “It will take us some time to build capacity along the way. which, in our opinion, will be necessary. Some states have funding and plan to increase staffing for 988 emergency services, but only four states — Colorado, Nevada, Washington, and Virginia — have introduced monthly phone bill fees similar to what Americans pay to fund 911 emergency services. .National Alliance on Mental Illness.

SAMHSA and mental health groups have stressed the need for state approval of the fee, saying it will help support 988 people after this year.

But in the meantime, several states have reported acceleration problems.

One such lifeline member, the Arkansas Crisis Center, has seen a 700% increase in calls over the past two years, but operates with the same number of employees, according to its chief executive Rebecca Brubaker.

Careline Alaska Crisis Intervention Service said it recently had the opportunity to increase wages and is now seeing a significant increase in applicants, chief executive Susanna Marchuk said. But along with the short deployment timeline on July 16, rebuilding the workforce after leaving amid the Covid-19 pandemic has become another challenge.

The Central Wyoming Advice Center currently has the staff to answer the approximately 500 phone calls it receives per month and recently received $2.1 million in one-time funding from the state legislature to provide 24/7 service, according to Andy Summerville, Executive Director. director of the Wyoming Mental Health Association and Substance Abuse Center. But Summerville called the funding “a bailout” and said that in two years he wouldn’t have the funding he needed to maintain round-the-clock service.

Training requirements for hotline employees vary from state to state and may require several hours of training. A crisis center in Alaska, for example, spends about 50 hours of “training time” on average, combined with 30 hours of “shadow time,” Marchuk said.

Hanna Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told CNN her organization is “really concerned” about increased demand after people become aware of 988 in July and beyond, given that “call centers from all forces are trying to keep up with the demand now”.

“Some states are well-equipped to respond, while others will rely heavily on national standby centers, meaning not every caller will get the local response they urgently need,” she said.

A push to “plug those gaps”

John Draper, Lifeline’s chief executive and Vibrant’s executive vice president of national networks, admitted to CNN that the problem with 988 is resourcing crisis centers, which he says have been operating “on a tight budget” for years.

And he acknowledged that not every center will have the staff they need by July, calling it a “long-term building process.”

“Vibrant is focusing most intensively on supporting national emergency call centers so that by July they can “close those gaps where crisis services are not enough to respond locally,” Draper said.

Palmieri told CNN it will also take time to build the capacity of national backup centers, saying they are currently comparable to the capacity of local call centers.

But according to Wesolowski, “ideally, we want these calls to be answered locally.”

“Because only a local call center can connect a person to resources in their community and dispatch emergency services when needed,” she said.

Wesolowski warned that without the efforts of states and communities to build the capacity of local call centers, “we are really in a tough spot.”

“The crisis system we want to build is rapidly taking shape, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” Vesolovsky said. “We are in a better position than just a few months ago and the system is improving every day. But it will be a lot of work.”

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