Launch of new 988 line to improve access to mental health services

A new three-digit suicide prevention and addiction hotline will launch on Saturday in an effort to increase the availability of mental health services amid the growing need caused by the pandemic.

Residents everywhere will be able to dial 988 to contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which was previously only accessible via the 10-digit 800 number. Those seeking help can call, text or chat at number that will be available 24 hours a day.

“We all know that mental health is finally starting to get the attention it used to, and that’s because of the hard work of people from the federal level to the community level. It doesn’t just happen,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said at an event in Perth Amboy on Friday.

Calls to the national hotline are answered by one of more than 200 local call centers associated with the caller’s area code. In most cases, local centers are best placed to refer callers to mental health services in their communities and are funded and staffed by local and state governments.

New Jersey lawmakers appropriated $12.8 million to maintain the 988 system A budget of $50.6 billion Gov. Phil Murphy signed the law last month, along with $432 million in federal funds. The federal government has already paid out $135 million of that money to states, with another $147 million going toward the lifeline itself.

The budget also includes $16 million for mobile crisis response to help people with mental health problems not severe enough to require hospitalization. New Jersey already offers such services in hospitals, but the mobile centers would fill an unmet need and could do so without police involvement.

“More than half of people seen at screening centers or by crisis response teams do not require hospitalisation, which sometimes means people go home without the new services or support,” the Commissioner for Human Services Sarah Adelman.

Federal and state officials have emphasized that the 988 system is different from existing 911 systems.

The use of area codes can connect some callers to remote call centers. A Floridian with a 609 area code, for example, would connect to a call center in the Northeast. Speaking to the press on Thursday, officials from the US Department of Health and Human Services said the agency is still investigating the implementation of geolocation.

Launching the system Saturday is just the first step in its implementation, Coughlin said.

Pandemic surge

Mental health plummeted during the long months of isolation many faced at the start of the pandemic, and it plummeted even more under the added stress introduced by COVID in later months as businesses ground to a halt amid shutdowns and the virus turned into a political football.

Visits to pediatricians for behavioral health problems at Hackensack Meridian Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, have nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, increasing by 90 percent, Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Robert Garrett said.

“So many patients in mental health crisis come into our emergency departments and have to compete with patients who have just had a stroke or a heart attack or been involved in a motor vehicle accident, and they often get lost in the shuffle,” – Garrett said.

He added that Hackensack Meridian will add 40 beds to its inpatient psychiatric treatment center.

Adults have not escaped the malaise. A Kaiser Family Foundation survey conducted in March found that 28 percent of New Jersey adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in the previous seven days, compared with just 11 percent who reported such symptoms in a pre-pandemic survey conducted from the organization in 2019.

“I don’t think there is a family in New Jersey that hasn’t come across a family member, neighbor or just a friend who has been affected by mental illness and is in need of mental health services,” Lt. Gov. Sheila said Oliver.


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