A new mental health crisis line is on the way

A new national suicide and mental health crisis hotline is scheduled to launch next week, and Maine officials say the state is on track to roll out the system here.

Federal officials have set a July 16 deadline for each state to roll out the new 988 hotline to connect callers to local responders. Some other countries have indicated that they may not meet this deadline. But Maine officials said they expect their system to be ready in time, in large part because they are merging with an already existing hotline.

The new system is supposed to work like the 911 emergency line, but is designed specifically for those experiencing a mental health crisis. No matter where a person is in the country, the same three-digit number will connect the caller to a specialist who can provide support and also connect the caller to local resources to help.

Callers will be evaluated by a specialist and, if the situation requires immediate attention, the caller will be directed to one of the state’s regional mobile crisis teams or to 911 if emergency services are needed, said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Health and human services.

The effort to create the 988 system began after a 30 percent increase in the nation’s suicide rate between 2000 and 2019, although the rate has declined slightly since then. Maine’s suicide rate is consistently higher than the national average. In 2020, Maine had 16.4 suicides per 100,000 residents, while the national rate was 13.5, according to the most recent federal data.

The Federal Communications Commission two years ago ordered all states to establish 988 lines by this month. But many countries have been slow to react. As of early June, the FCC said only 20 states had passed bills to create 988 calling systems, and only a handful had created ways to pay for the service.

In Maine, the 988 system will connect to the Maine Crisis Line, a service of The Opportunity Alliance that offers support to those facing a behavioral crisis. The Maine Crisis Line, which has been in operation for four years, will continue to answer calls to its line (1-888-568-1112) and also handle calls to 988. The crisis line currently handles about 300 calls a day, officials said .

DHHS is spending $450,000 to implement 988 and will spend $13 million on crisis support services in the current biennial budget cycle. That includes $2.4 million for hotlines, including the Maine crisis line.

Behavioral health organizations said they are eager to see the new 988 system go live.

“It’s going to be a great tool, although it’s probably going to take some time to be implemented to full capacity,” said Jennifer Christian, project manager for the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, Maine.

Christian said a key asset will be having one number to call regardless of location, just as people know to call 911 if they’re away from home and have an emergency.

“I hope this is a way to help people immediately, with more specific resources,” she said.

Farwell said Maine has been working on its plan to roll out 988 since April 2021 and continues to work with other organizations that will be part of the new system, including EMS, law enforcement, mobile crisis teams and others.

“The adoption of 988 will ultimately provide a new, easily accessible ‘front door’ for Maine crisis services across the state,” she said, but “it will take time to establish new processes, build staff capacity and develop components to the crisis system that are needed to fully implement the 988 crisis system. Longer term, the vision is to continue to strengthen a robust crisis response system in Maine and across the country.”

Farwell said the 988 system is part of $230 million in state and federal funds that DHHS is spending during the current biennial budget cycle to build a workforce of care providers and improve access to behavioral health services in Maine.

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