GREENVILLE, SC – The mental health version of 911 is set to launch nationwide next month in hopes it will be a game-changer for preventing suicide and other emergencies, but some mental health professionals fear of not being prepared to handle the expected flood of calls. .
“We have all the technology,” said Jennifer Piver, executive director of Mental Health America of Greenville County in South Carolina. “We don’t have the funding for the staff, for the salaries.”
The new national three-digit number – 988 – is intended to connect people in mental health crisis with those who are specially trained to respond to such situations. The easy-to-remember issue will launch on July 16.
In 2020, bipartisan legislation in Congress mandated the launch of the 988 emergency number but left financial support for staff, phone lines, computer systems, and other infrastructure to the states.
But most states, including South Carolina, have not allocated money for the service. Even partial legislation to implement 988 is pending in just 20 states, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness. Only four states, Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Washington, have adopted comprehensive funding plans.
According to a report by Rand Corp. released last week, more than half of public health officials tasked with launching the 988 line said they felt unprepared and without funding for staff or infrastructure to manage the rollout.
The lack of support from lawmakers has baffled mental health professionals like Piver. South Carolina, for example, passed the Student Identification Card Suicide Prevention Act last year, which required the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to be printed on student identification cards from seventh grade through college.
The program was a success, Piver said. “In the first 24 hours of the first day of school, we saved the life of a youngster.”
Some states have passed legislation to add charges to cellphone lines to pay for 988, but similar proposals in many states have failed.
Every moment counts when a person in crisis or a family member calls for help. Piver and other mental health professionals nationwide are concerned that states without the designated funds or staff will struggle to meet the expected demand when the line launches next month.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 20% of Americans will suffer from a mental illness in any given year. And reports of mental health issues have spiked in recent years, even before the Covid pandemic.
A previous state grant enabled Piver’s team in Greenville County, Northwestern South Carolina, to build infrastructure for a new call center.
“We have the seats. We have an endless supply of resources to get people working remotely,” Piver said.
But there is no new support, she said, to hire enough qualified people to staff the lines. Calls that arrive at call centers without proper staff are placed in a queue and routed elsewhere, often to the National Suicide Hotline or to other states.
“If we don’t have the people to answer the phone, time is an issue,” she said. People in mental health emergencies who are strong enough to call for help need help fast, she said.
“Are they going to be on the phone that long to make sure they’re being routed to someone?
Director of the University of Kentucky Suicide Prevention and Exposure Laboratory, Julie Cerel, a licensed psychologist, agreed.
Waiting for help makes crisis callers “less likely to call the next time they have a problem,” Cerel said. “If they are in a crisis where they are suicidal or considering ending their life, it could lead them to hang up the phone and attempt suicide or die by suicide.”
What is 988?
The new number should be easier to remember than the 800 number operated by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. It aims to streamline mental health responses so people can get the urgent help they need much faster than calling 911, which typically connects callers to law enforcement rather than mental health professionals.
Bob Gebbia, chief operating officer of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, said the 988 program shows promise, but he called for additional federal and state funding to implement it properly.
“It’s always better that we have that,” he said, “but the corresponding demand is a concern.”
The Greenville call center – the only center of its kind certified to handle mental health calls for the more than 5 million people living in South Carolina – is able to answer more than 80% of the approximately 100 calls from mental health crisis that happens every day.
Piver expects the percentage to drop unless the state steps in with additional funding — and the number of calls will only increase after 988 rolls out.
South Carolina does not have legislation on the table to increase funds for 988. Piver said she was frustrated with the lack of funds, saying calls to her center had helped defuse life-threatening situations in which people would otherwise have had to call the police. , sit in emergency rooms or ultimately die by suicide.
“These phone calls save lives.”
The new hotline does not come into effect until mid-July. If you or someone you know is in immediate crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, text HOME at 741741 or visit SpeakingOfSuicide.com/resources for additional resources.
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