988 crisis line launch: Are states ready?

The U.S. has seen a broad push for increased mental health resources since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, but staffing and provider counts are still woefully inadequate in some places.

A June 2 survey of 180 behavioral health program directors conducted by researchers at Rand Corp. found that half had not been involved in any planning related to the national suicide prevention lifeline's 3-digit launch. 

John Draper, head of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, told NPR on July 11 that some states are more prepared for 988 than others, but he's encouraged by the progress.

Becker's spoke with behavioral health leaders around the country about whether they're ready for the expected spike in call volumes once 988 goes live July 16.

Lauren Cunningham. Director of communications at Virginia Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Services:

Some states are struggling with the 988 transition, staffing call centers, and having response teams ready, but Virginia has been ahead of the curve thanks to state legislation and a focus on our comprehensive crisis efforts. We have increased our ability to answer national suicide prevention line calls in-state by 33 percent since January of 2021, in large part due to the enhanced assistance provided to our call centers. At the same time, we recognize that 988 will take time to build, just like 911 did when it was first launched. That said, the 988 line will only be successful if the community services are built out to provide them someone other than law enforcement to connect people to. 

Thomas Otten. Assistant vice president at Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center (Sioux Falls, S.D.):

While Avera is not running the 988 line, we work very closely with Helpline, the agency that does, and I have previously served as their board chair. Helpline has almost all the staff hired and are only looking for one more master's level counselor to work overnights.  Even without that role, I don’t think we will have long holds or those issues in South Dakota, which is great news.

Debra Walker. Director of public affairs at Missouri Department of Mental Health:

Missouri providers are prepared and sufficiently staffed to address the estimated 253,000 contacts (calls, texts, and chats) expected in the first year. 

Jeremy Williams, RN. Director of behavioral health at Providence St. Patrick Hospital (Missoula, Mont.):

If there aren’t enough staff to support a call center or enough clinicians available for medical treatment, then we are failing our communities with false promises of support.

Patrick Aquino, MD. Chair of the division of psychiatry and behavioral medicine at Lahey Hospital and Medical Center; medical director of primary care-behavioral health integration at Beth Israel Lahey Health Behavioral Services; and assistant professor of psychiatry at Tufts University School of Medicine (Boston):

As a provider in Massachusetts, I am excited about the availability of patients to have an easy point of access to receive crisis support through the new 988 line. There has been such an increase in need for mental health services during the COVID pandemic and this is another valuable resource that will help individuals when they are most vulnerable. I remain hopeful that the services available through 988, which will be tapping into our existing crisis lines, will be able to eventually help connect individuals in need to critical clinical services and treatment. 

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