Vermont to launch 3-digit number for National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July

Vermont will join the rest of the United States in launching 988 as an emergency phone number for mental health distress and crises. The number is expected to become active and accessible on July 16. Photo illustration by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Vermont will join the rest of the nation in launching a new three-digit number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July, using base funding from the state budget.

All states will be federally required to offer the three-digit number, 988, by July 16 as a mental health provision. On Thursday, Governor Phil Scott signed H.740, legislation that provides ongoing government funding to support Vermont’s Lifeline staffing and infrastructure.

Terri Lavely, a board member and field attorney for the Vermont Chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, helps oversee the deployment of 988. She testified on behalf of that bill as well as for a previous bill with which it coincided, S.69, for the House and Senate Appropriations Committees.

“It’s a huge step forward, and it took so long,” Lavely said. “(We need to) get people to the services they need and the answers they need when they need them. It doesn’t always happen at 9 a.m. when your therapist is in the office. Sometimes it’s at 2 a.m. when you’re just struggling with your own thoughts.

In preparation for launching the three-digit number, Vermont made all dialed calls require entry of a full 10-digit number — even for local 802 calls — in October 2021.

Indeed, Vermont is one of many states whose phone numbers begin with 988, said Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

“Not every state had that, but we were one,” Krompf said. “It caused everyone to get a little alert on their phone that said, like ‘starting October 1st’, and it actually got a lot of interest.”

Another element of Vermont’s 988 launch plan that not all states will necessarily benefit from is 24/7 service.

The Federal Communications Commission, which established 988 as an easy-to-remember national area code in 2020, requires all telephone service providers to direct all 988 calls to Lifeline beginning on the number’s full national launch date of July 16. .

All Covered Providers are required by the Federal Communications Commission to implement 10-digit dialing in areas that use 988 as the first three numbers of seven-digit telephone numbers.

“We’ve been preparing for this moment, especially since 2019,” Krompf said.

Around this time, Krompf began working for the Department of Mental Health, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline contacted the department as Vermont did not yet have any call centers operating the hotline at that time.

The Ministry of Mental Health initially received a capacity building grant for these services in 2019 to onboard staff and start the Lifeline project, then received a planning grant, in which case it had to find other funding sources to maintain staff and infrastructure. .

The first grant came from a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

As of 2019, Vermont has implemented two certified call centers that operate through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline – although currently the Lifeline can only be reached by calling 800-273-8255 or through a 10-digit number for individual units based in Vermont. .

Vibrant, the Lifeline provider, predicts a 30% increase in line usage with 988 as the calling number, Lavely said.

The two Vermont-based affiliate organizations that receive calls on the National Helpline are Northwest Counseling and Support Services and Northeast Kingdom Human Services. Ten community mental health centers have their own crisis lines.

The other eight mental health centers in Vermont, which are not certified by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, still offer 24/7 services but operate on a pager system at night, while the centers affiliates are fully staffed with 24/7 service providers.

Yet Krompf does not foresee a competitive element in the ongoing relationship between the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and existing local organizations, because Lifeline does not provide ongoing counseling or other services that these mental health centers provide.

“It should be a benchmark pipeline,” she said. “The service they provide doesn’t take anything away. The hope is that it will increase traffic as more people who don’t know about these services will find out about them.”

Vermont Care Partners, the body that oversees Vermont’s 10 designated mental health agencies, plans to devote an upcoming Monday meeting entirely to planning for the deployment of 988, said Joe Halko, director of community relations at Northwestern Counseling and Support. Services.

“We are coming out of a two-year period where the system has, in a sense, been overwhelmed by the growing number of people seeking services, and the intention now is certainly to scale that up,” he said. he declares. “It’s really about renaming and expanding the services that can be provided.”

Another National Lifeline benefit is Vermont’s partnership with New Hampshire as a backup for times of high call volume at Vermont-based call centers, to ensure that Vermonters who call in times of distress or crisis will never be met by a busy signal. .

Krompf said his department plans to heavily promote the hotline through several forms of outreach, such as newsletters and social media promotion. She hopes the number will become as well known as 911.

“Think of when you were a kid and everyone knows 911,” Krompf said. “We also want to clarify that you don’t have to be suicidal to call a mental health crisis.”

Krompf also stressed the importance of the distinction between the two emergency numbers, 911 being intended for immediate medical attention or police intervention, and 988 intended to help prevent the need for medical intervention. serious.

“As wonderful as 911 is, I’ve spoken to many people who would be really, really scared to call,” she said. “They worry about whether or not the answer would make things worse in a way that would make things worse.”

Especially in a world impacted by Covid-19, these types of mental health response services are crucial, Krompf said. With the onset of the pandemic, suicide attempts and suicide death rates increased, but not immediately after the pandemic arrived in March 2020.

The highest rates Vermont has reported in more than a decade were in 2021, and projections for 2022 don’t look much better, Krompf said.

Halko said he thinks the consequences of the pandemic on people’s mental health will likely have long-term effects for years to come.

Children as young as 10 have used Vermont’s mental health crisis call centers, Lavely said. She hopes today’s children will be the generation that truly breaks down the stigma that still surrounds mental health.

“If you have a toothache, you don’t wait to go to the dentist. If you have a broken bone, you don’t wait to go to the emergency room,” Ms. Lavely said. “Why would you wait to take care of your sanity? »

Krompf said these services are known to save lives, and several people have told him that, but for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they would have attempted suicide.

“The biggest change from my perspective, that it’s a 988 number just like a 911, is putting mental health on the same footing as physical health,” he said. she declared. “It deserves a lot to have the availability of a 24/7 response like any other challenge or affliction.”

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