From July 16, people at risk of mental illness will have a new three-digit number, 988, to reach trained counsellors.

Jenny Kane/AP

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Jenny Kane/AP

From July 16, people at risk of mental illness will have a new three-digit number, 988, to reach trained counsellors.

Jenny Kane/AP

From July 16, people with mental health problems will have a new way to get help. Instead of dialing the 10-number National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they can simply dial or text 9-8-8.

Modeled after 911, the new 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline is designed to be a memorable and quick number that connects people who are suicidal or in any mental health crisis to a professional psychiatrist.

“If you need someone to turn to in times of crisis, 988 will be there,” said Xavier Becerra, secretary of health and human services, at a recent press conference. “988 will not be a busy signal, and 988 will not stop you. You will find help.”

The main purpose of the new number is to make it easier for people to call for help. But lawmakers and health advocates see this as an opportunity to change mental health care systems and make health care more accessible anywhere in the United States.

Here’s what you need to know about the new code and what to expect when it launches.

988 fills a critical gap in mental health care

Currently, most people with mental health issues can call 911.

The problem is that 911 is not designed to meet psychological needs. Callers can end up in the emergency room, waiting hours and sometimes days for care, or they can contact the police, which can lead to tragedy or tragedy.

Healthcare providers hope that 988 will become a more popular, safer and more effective system.

“Unlike other medical emergencies, mental health issues make people more likely to follow the law,” said psychologist Benjamin Miller, president of the Well Being Trust. “If you look at what the police found, about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding to and transporting people with mental health issues.”

Last year, he adds, “more than 2 million people with severe mental illness were incarcerated.” And nearly a quarter of fatal police shootings in recent years have involved people with mental illness, he adds.

Miles Hall was one of them. A 23-year-old man was shot by police during a mental health crisis outside his home in California.

Miles had schizoaffective disorder, says his mother, Taun Hall, who founded the Miles Hall Foundation to push for mental health reform.

But they did not resort to violence, even when they were faced with demonstrations or demonstrations, he adds. “He was a great kid. He walked around the room, and he had a wicked smile. He was a beautiful soul.”

On June 2, 2019, after experiencing a mental breakdown, his family called 911, hoping to get Miles into an ambulance and a hospital. Instead, the police arrived at their door.

“He was shot and killed on the side of the highway,” Town Hall said. “Miles was shot four times.”

The goal of the 988 effort is to reduce these types of conflicts with law enforcement and connect people in crisis to immediate help. It is part of a long-term effort to improve emergency response teams across the country.

The 988 concept has been in the works for several years. In 2020, President Donald Trump signed an executive order to make this number the answer to all mental health problems. It is a joint effort of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

988 connects callers with a team of trained advisors

The 988 rescue system will connect people to an existing network of over 200 local call centers across the country. (The 10-digit suicide prevention number — 1-800-273-8255 — will remain active, but calls will be forwarded to 988 once the three-digit number begins.)

People who call or text the numbers will be connected to a trained counselor at their nearest crisis center. If the emergency center is too busy to respond immediately, the call is forwarded to one of 16 emergency centers nationwide.

For many people who call the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, that call is helpful.

“We know that about 90% of people who call get what they need over the phone,” said Chuck Ingoglia, CEO of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

The remaining 10% of callers may need additional support or personal care, and counselors trained in lifestyle will try to connect them with that care.

It can encourage communities to build more social support in times of crisis

In preparation for the implementation of 988, more and more countries are beginning to expand their ability to provide emergency medical services to emergency callers.

Angela Kimball, senior vice president of advocacy and policy at the nonprofit Inseparable, was fortunate to have experienced quality care during her mental health crisis.

In 2017, Kimball’s son, who had bipolar disorder, had a major manic episode. He was 32 years old and living in Portland, Ore., at the time.

“They tore out all the cabinets in the kitchen. They smashed the stove with a hammer,” Kimball recalls. “He was talking about how poisonous the soap was and how he felt like he was being watched.”

Kimball reached out to the emergency room, where he dispatched a mobile emergency team to his son’s home. “He came in — he spoke very politely and kindly to my son,” Kimball recalls.

Kimball says his son agreed to go with the team to the local emergency unit and was immediately treated.

Such a response to mental health problems is still not happening. Project 988 aims to change this.

“In the long term, 988’s vision is to have additional emergency response services in communities across the country, similar to emergency response services,” said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, HHS assistant secretary for SAMHSA, in a statement.

Major federal funding is supporting the implementation of 988

Since its introduction in 2005, the current 10-digit system has been widely used. But until recently, local call centers received very little federal funding.

John Draper, director of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said: “They’ve been using shoelaces for years. Many places have been closed due to lack of equipment in recent years.

According to HHS, in 2021 the helpline received 3.6 million calls, chats and texts. But SAMHSA’s 2021 report found that the current system can only answer 85% of calls, 56% of texts and 30% of chats.

Health officials predict that the number of calls, chats and text messages will increase in the first year after 988 starts.

To prepare for this increase, the federal government has invested heavily in the internet.

“Earlier this year, Congress began appropriating additional dollars to help call centers hire volunteers to work at 988 numbers,” says Ingoglia, of the National Council for Mental Wellbeing.

More than $400 million – up from $24 million – has helped strengthen local call centers and backups and provide related services, including a small portion of Spanish-speaking communities, according to a statement from HHS.

And that’s important, says Draper. Several places are [now] to be supported in ways they’ve never received money for, that’s very motivating,” he says.

The facility has been able to hire new employees, and the salvage process has been able to increase the capacity of the warehouse.

And he’s already seeing the impact of the lifestyle response to those he’s reaching out to, he says. For example, he says, “right now we’re responding to 90% of our chats. And this time last year it was around 20 to 23%.”

This may be the start of a new era, but there is a long road ahead

It will take time for the 988 to achieve its ultimate goal, promoters say.

“This is the beginning of the story,” says Ingoglia. “There will also need to be funding at the federal level, at the state level, at the local level, to make sure that this meets its potential.”

But making 988 fully operational and able to answer every caller in the long run will require significant state and federal funding. The 2020 Act allows states to enact laws to add a small fee to cell phone bills as a permanent source of funding for 988 and mental health care. (The system is used to support 911 services.) But so far, only four states have done so, and only two have laws in place.

A recent survey of 180 healthcare executives from around the country by the non-profit Rand Corp. found that 51% of respondents said that they did not participate in the creation of the 988 plan. And only 16% said that they made a budget to support 988 activities.

But “more and more states are seeing a critical need for mental health and emergency access,” said Lauren Conaboy, vice president of national policy at Centerstone, a provider of mental health and addiction services that operates in several states.

So he is hopeful that when the number starts, many countries will start implementing laws to support 988 over time. That includes investing in initiatives like the mobile crisis group and crisis-focused unit that helped Kimball’s family in Oregon, as well as other social services, including drug addiction treatment.

“The 988 amendment has come to represent an unprecedented opportunity to review and review how crisis services are supported and delivered in communities across the country,” says Colleen Carr, director of the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention.

SAMHSA’s Delphin-Rittmon is urging states and local governments to invest more in changing ways to address mental health issues in the country.

Despite slow progress in many states, health advocates are happy with 988.

“We have to take the training wheels and get it out of the car and start walking, knowing that this is an event,” says Becky Stoll, vice president of crisis and disaster management at Centerstone. “We can continue to expand and make it more efficient in all areas.”

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