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Massachusetts preps for '988' mental health hotline launch

 A volunteer speaks with a caller on the Samaritans hotline.
Jesse Costa
A volunteer speaks with a caller on the Samaritans hotline.

People experiencing a mental health crisis will soon have a faster way to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

On July 16, Massachusetts and states across the country plan to roll out a three-digit code — 988 — that people can call or text to reach a trained volunteer who can help them through their struggle. Then-President Trump signed legislation into law in 2020 creating the new code after advocates pushed to shorten the current lifeline number, 800-273-8255, to make it easier to remember.

People who call the 800 number after 988 launches still will be connected with someone who can help. That includes specific services for veterans (pressing “1”) and Spanish-speakers (pressing “2”), along with accessible online chat services for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

If 988 looks and sounds familiar, then it’s already succeeded. Behavioral health professionals say using a number similar to the widely known 911 will not only reduce barriers to care for people in crisis, but also stigma around needing that care in the first place.

“Young people will grow up knowing this number,” said Kathy Marchi, president of the Boston-based nonprofit suicide prevention services provider Samaritans, Inc. There are separately operated Samaritans call centers covering Cape Cod and the Islands, the Merrimack Valley and the South Coast.

Other organizations participating in the 988 launch alongside Samaritans include Framingham-based Call2Talk, the state’s Department of Mental Health, MassHealth, the 911 department, the Mass Behavioral Health Partnership and the Mass Coalition for Suicide Prevention. Calls will be routed to the nearest center based on area code.

The move to 988 collides with a broad and deep mental health crisis fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

State data show the percentage of adults reporting long stretches of poor mental health more than tripled from 2019 to 2020. A Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts Foundation survey released earlier this year found more than a third of state residents over the age of 19 reported needing behavioral health care for themselves or a close relative.

Marchi said the hope is people will feel empowered to call 988 before they experience suicidal thoughts. For instance, if they feel lonely or isolated, or are simply having a bad day and need someone to talk to.

While the 988 number promises increased access at a critical time, it’s also upping demand for trained volunteers on the other end of the line, Marchi said, describing the impending launch as both exciting and nerve-wracking.

“It’s a new system. It will change the volume of calls that we receive, significantly — as it is intended, and is a good thing,” she said. “But nobody knows what that is. No one knows, ‘Oh, it’s gonna be this many more calls, and this is the answer to how we make it work.’ ”

Samaritans and other mental health providers are staffing up crisis centers to handle the expected wave of new callers as more people learn about 988 and commit it to memory. Marchi said Samaritans received support from the state’s Department of Public Health to help meet rising demand.

“Volunteer recruitment has long been a priority of ours, to constantly be filling that pipeline,” Marchi said. “We know how to do this and we do it well, and we continue to figure out ways to widen the pipeline to make sure we have people available, ready to be trained, getting through training, getting through practice shifts.”

Marchi said Samaritans has historically had success recruiting young people just out of college. But the positions attract people across the demographic spectrum who want to make a difference in their community, she added. Samaritans asks adult volunteers to commit to work 200 hours over nine months, most often through four-hour shifts. Teenagers are asked for 150 volunteer hours over the same period.

The new 988 system will likely improve over time, Marchi said, regardless of any early staffing challenges or bumps in the road.

“We’ll help figure out what needs to be done to make it work as best as it possibly can for anyone who calls,” she said.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 WBUR. To see more, visit WBUR.

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