The new number to call if a person is having thoughts of suicide is 988. The new, three-digit number launched this past weekend. Photo by Miryam Leon on unsplash.com

published on July 18, 2022 - 11:37 AM
Written by Breanna Hardy

With mental health front-of-mind for many since the pandemic, the federal government is rolling out a new suicide crisis line — 988.

The current suicide lifeline, 1-800-273-TALK, was launched in 2005. But in 2020, the Federal Communications Commission designated 988 as the new three-digit number for a suicide prevention line.

Ahmad Bahrami, division manager for public behavioral health with Fresno County, said a three-digit number will be more memorable. In times of crisis, it could be lifesaving, he added.

Call volume since the pandemic has grown, though suicide deaths have slowly started to trend down. In the 2020-2021 fiscal year, Fresno County received 6,467 calls to 1-800-273-TALK. While there are large gaps in the data because of the nature of collecting information during a crisis call, there were 31 instances of talking someone down from suicide attempts and 65 active rescues because of the calls. Active rescues involve contacting first responders for individuals who are not cooperating with the operator.

Because 988 is easier to remember and promote, it’s anticipated call volume will increase exponentially.

“You’re going to need potentially more staff just to handle the larger call volume,” Bahrami said.

A study performed by the RAND Corp. assessed limitations to 988 implementation include workforce shortages, lack of funding and concerns about care coordination. Strengths include collaboration with local community organizations. The survey was conducted with 180 responses from behavioral health program directors who represented jurisdictions from across the country.

“Although mandated at a national level, the launch of 988 will require substantial effort on the part of state and local agencies to ensure sufficient capacity to handle these calls and connect callers with local mental health emergency services if needed,” said Stephanie Brooks Holliday, a co-leader of the project and a RAND behavioral scientist. “Our findings show much more work needs to be done.”

Bahrami said calls to the current lifeline have been longer and more intense, meaning callers are often getting talked down from attempting suicide.

The National Hotline Designation Act was signed into law in 2020 and launched on Saturday.

Although the current suicide lifeline is not going away, local call centers are expecting a higher volume of calls to the new number and are preparing for launch day.

The Central Valley Suicide Prevention Lifeline will handle seven counties’ calls — Stanislaus, Merced, Mariposa, Madera, Kings, Tulare and Fresno. Each county funds the call center based on the calls received. Fresno County contributes more than half of the call center budget.

David Lopez, program manager for the Central Valley Suicide Prevention Lifeline, said a delay in marketing the new three-digit number was intentional. Full services will be rolled out over time.

The full vision down the road includes a mobile crisis response team to respond to calls in the field. A continuum plan would include crisis stabilization units to follow up on calls. Every one of the crisis centers is accredited by the American Association of Suicidology, a nonprofit dedicated to suicide prevention.

“Such as if you were to get a 911 call, you could get EMS,” Lopez said. “You could get law enforcement; you could get fire.”

The call center is anticipating a 2.5-fold increase in calls in the first year. It anticipates hiring up to 20 additional staff members to handle the anticipated volume.

“The last thing you want to do is offer a service and not have the capacity to build it,” Lopez said.

He said the anticipation has been similar to the rollout of 911 in 1968.

“It’s been a whole lot of preparation,” Lopez said.

The governmental push will come after the July 16 launch. Lopez believes it will help dismantle the stigma associated with mental illness.

“It is going to be such a nationwide push,” he said.

Like the 911 operating system, 988 call centers will route phone numbers to their respective area codes. Callers should be aware to disclose their location if their area code do not associate with their region’s call center.

In addition to the 988 launch, Fresno County is starting a pilot program which provides follow-up services for individuals post-suicide attempt and post-discharge from the hospital.

Within 48 hours of the call, the behavioral health department will contact the individual, assessing their mental health and providing additional prevention strategies to help cope with stress. 

“People aren’t alone and there is hope out there. This center is open 24/7 with trained individuals who care about helping people,” Lopez said.

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