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New 988 hotline for mental health emergencies launches

Earlier this month, the National Suicide and Crisis Lifeline changed its number to a three-digit code – 988. 

Administered by Vibrant Emotional Health, anyone who calls 988 will automatically connect with one of 200 local crisis centers nationwide. The Lifeline is funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services through its Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. 

"Hope has a new number and it is 988," said Kimberly Williams, president & CEO of Vibrant, in a press release announcing the change. "This historic transition to 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline will promote help-seeking and increase awareness and accessibility to this life-saving resource." 

To promote the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline, Meriden's Department of Health and Human Services will be handing out mental health resources, wallet cards and magnets with the number at the city's National Night Out on August 2. 

"I encourage everyone to put the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline number in their cell phone,"  said Lea Crown, director of Department for Health and Human Services. "Persons in need experiencing suicidal, substance use, and other mental health crisis can call or text this number 24/7 to be connected to a trained professional. These professionals can provide referrals to resources, warm hand-offs to mobile crisis services or emergency services as needed/desired."

It’s designed to be as easy to remember and use as 911, but instead of a dispatcher sending police, firefighters or paramedics, 988 will connect callers with trained mental health counselors.

The federal government has provided over $280 million to help states create systems that will do much more, including mobile mental health crisis teams that can be sent to people’s homes and emergency mental health centers, similar to urgent care clinics that treat physical aches and pains.

“This is one of the most exciting things that has happened” in mental health care, said Dr. Brian Hepburn, a psychiatrist who heads the National Association of State Mental Health Program Directors.

According to the 2020 National Survey on Drug Use and Health, an estimated 21 million U.S. adults – 8.4 percent of the total adult population –  had at least one major depressive episode.

In 2019, one in seven Connecticut adults was diagnosed with depression and 359 committed suicide in 2020, according to the state's Department of Public Health.

Lifeline was founded in 2005 and received 46,000 calls in its first year. Their total crisis communications for 2021 was 3.6 million calls via phone, text, and/or chats. 

"The 988 Lifeline is a vital mental health safety net for all in this country," Williams said. 

In Connecticut, Lifeline calls are answered by crisis contact specialists and/or peer support specialists at United Way of Connecticut/211 Health and Human Services Contact Center. 

The specialists are available "24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year," said Carin Buckman,  director of communications at United Way of Connecticut. 

On the rare occasion that a specialist can't answer a call, the caller is transferred to the national backup crisis center for assistance. 

According to Buckman, United Way Connecticut/211 received 125,000 calls last year. They also reported that 94% of their adult callers said their crisis diminished while on the phone and that less than 1% of calls needed first responders.  

211 will dispatch a mobile crisis unit to the caller's location when necessary. 

The 988 national line has a text/chat option, but it will not be available in Connecticut until July 2023. Any texts/chats will be directed to Lifeline's national text/chat center. 

Many numbers are associated with Lifeline, such as the state Department of Mental Health and Addiction Service's "Action Line" and the Youth Mobile Crisis Line. All will continue to be active but will be routed to 988 with instructions to find specific resources. 

For example, veterans can call 988 and press the number 1 to connect to the Veterans Crisis Line. 

"Nothing changes," Buckman explained. "There are no wrong doors." 

The Lifeline number change is part of President Biden's National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 –  just one of many federal and state initiatives to address the rising mental health crisis. 

In May, Gov. Ned Lamont signed three significant bills to help increase children's access to mental health services. 

Similarly, the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act will provide more funding for children and families' mental health services, school safety, and gun safety programs. 

U.S. Senator Chris Murphy, D-Conn., says the latter bill will bring significant federal funding to the state to continue building up mental health resources. 

"Connecticut has been a leader when it comes to crisis hotlines, and our work has been a model for the nation as they've developed the 988 capacity. In our state, if you call 211 or 988, you are going to get help immediately," said Murphy. "But a person's crisis is never going to be fully addressed in a phone call, and so we are also investing more in follow-up."

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance abuse or mental health, contact the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline at 988.  

Information from the Associated Press was used in this story.

Health Equity Reporter Cris Villalonga-Vivoni is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journal-ists into local newsrooms. To learn more about RFA go to www.reportforamerica .org.



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