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Editorial: New suicide hotline number an encouraging development

At this moment when mental health crises are affecting an alarming number of people, the timing is ideal to provide them with a valuable new tool to get help.

This month the three-digit 988 Suicide & Crisis hotline was established nationwide. People experiencing a mental health crisis can reach out for help in the U.S. by calling or texting 988.

Prior to the establishment of the number, which has been in effect since July 16, people seeking help likely would call 911, which isn’t geared specifically toward addressing mental health issues. The alternative was to look up where to call for help, as the numbers vary from one community to another. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s 10-digit number — 1-800-273-8255 — will remain active, but calls will be routed to 988.

Modeled after 911, the new line is designed to be a memorable and quick way to connect people to a trained mental health professional.

“If you are willing to turn to someone in your moment of crisis, 988 will be there,” U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said. “988 won’t be a busy signal, and 988 won’t put you on hold. You will get help.”

The launch represents an opportunity to make mental health care easily accessible. The Biden administration has invested more than $400 million in boosting services to support the 988 system.

Mental health advocates say an alternative to 911 was badly needed. Calls to that line often result in someone waiting for care in an emergency room or interacting with law enforcement.

“Unlike other medical emergencies, mental health crises overwhelmingly result in a law enforcement response,” psychologist Benjamin Miller, president of Well Being Trust. told NPR. “If you look at the data from the police, about 20% of their total staff time is spent responding and transporting individuals who are experiencing a mental health crisis.”

Just last year, he said, more than 2 million people with serious mental illness were put in jail. And nearly 25% of fatal shootings by the police in recent years have involved people with mental illness.

The goal behind 988 is to reduce confrontations with law enforcement and connect people in crisis to help right away.

In 2020, President Donald Trump signed a bipartisan bill to create the number with support from the Department of Health and Human Services, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Calls to 988 are connected to an existing network of more than 200 local crisis call centers around the country.

The plan is to have people communicate with a counselor at a crisis center closest to them. If a local crisis center is too busy, the call gets routed to one of 16 backup centers.

For the vast majority of people who call the current National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, the call itself is an effective intervention. If callers need additional support, counselors will try to connect them to the care they need.

The new number is a great development, but it needs to be followed by continued efforts to beef up crisis services to meet the demand. Federal officials say that’s part of the vision for the program. Achieving it will require investments by the federal, state and local governments.

Consider that the 10-digit crisis line received 3.6 million calls, chats and texts in 2021, but a federal report found that the system only was able to respond to only 85% of calls, 56% of texts and 30% of chats. Health officials project that the number of calls, chats and texts will at least double in the first full year with 988 in effect. The new number received more than 96,000 calls, texts and chats during its first week in operation, up 45% from the week before the transition and 66% from the same time in 2021.

So remember the number in case you or a loved one ever need it. And keep the pressure on elected officials to make sure this system has the resources it needs to live up to its lifesaving promise.


Source: Berkshire mont

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