Mental health groups express concern over readiness for new suicide prevention hotline



CNN

Leading groups on mental health and suicide prevention are concerned that the new, shorter number for the National Suicide Prevention Line – 988 – will not be ready to cope with the expected influx of calls when it is available nationwide next month. .

As of July 16, people seeking mental health services can call 988 to access counselors and response teams on the 24-hour National Suicide Prevention Line. Calls will be redirected to the current number, 1-800-273-8255, which will continue to operate during and after the 988 extension.

The new number aims to make it easier for those in crisis to contact someone who can help, and the federal agency in charge of the hotline expects the number of callers to double from 2020. But with more than The 200 call centers that currently exist across the country are already stretched, and mental health groups are worried that 988 may run out of resources and lead to longer waiting times and disconnected calls. Without additional funding for the upcoming service, these groups say, callers will not receive the help they need, and officials acknowledge that the hotline is not expected to be fully staffed when it emerges.

“While this is a turning point, it is an exciting opportunity to transform our current crisis care system into something that is not a universal model, but takes into account the experiences and realities of many communities experiencing behavioral or mental health problems. hello, we’re a little worried that the implementation may not be ready, “said Preston Mitchum, director of advocacy and government affairs at The Trevor Project, a suicide prevention organization for young LGBTQ people.

Bob Gebia, chief executive of the American Suicide Prevention Foundation, told CNN that “the big concern is that the requirements may exceed capacity very quickly and these centers will be overloaded.”

“When that happens, then the calls are cut off, the waiting time increases and people who are on the other side and struggling don’t get the connection they need,” Gebia said.

The hotline received 3.6 million calls, chats and text messages in 2020. After the transition 988, the Administration for the Abuse of Substances and Mental Health Services, an agency of the Ministry of Health and Human Services, expects the volume of contacts to double in the first year to 6 million, probably up to 12 million.

Following the FCC’s 2020 approval of 988, the federal government and the call line administrator, Vibrant Emotional Health, are preparing to implement the three-digit number nationwide by providing grants to states to support call centers and are actively trying to to hire more crisis advisers. (People who are interested in learning more can visit www.samhsa.gov/find-help/988/jobs.)

The Biden administration provided $ 282 million for the 988 transition, including funding for states and territories to improve response rates and capacity to meet future demand. The 2021 SAMHSA Appropriations Report to Congress reports that the capacity of the rescue line is sufficient to respond to approximately 85% of calls, based on internal analysis of Vibrant data for December 2020, the latest available data .

Dr John Palmieri, acting director of SAMHSA’s Crisis Coordination Office 988 and Behavioral Crisis, told CNN that the United States is currently in various stages of readiness, adding: “It will take us some time to build capacity Some states have funding and plan to increase staff by 988, but only four – Colorado, Nevada, Washington and Virginia – have introduced a monthly phone bill similar to the one Americans pay. pay to fund 911, according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

SAMHSA and mental health groups stressed the need for states to approve the fee, saying it would help maintain the 988 after this year.

But in the meantime, several states have reported challenges in reaching speed.

One such lifeline, the Arkansas Crisis Center, has seen a 700 percent increase in calls over the past two years, but is working with the same number of staff, according to its executive director, Rebecca Brubaker.

The Alaska Crisis Response Office in Alaska said it had recently had the opportunity to increase salaries and is now seeing a significant increase in candidates, said Executive Director Susanna Marchuk. But along with the short schedule until July 16, the recovery of the workforce after leaving the Covid-19 pandemic is another challenge.

Wyoming’s Central Counseling Center currently has staff to answer about 500 phone calls it receives per month, and recently received a one-time $ 2.1 million injection from the U.S. legislature for 24/7 services, according to Andy Somerville. , executive director of the Wyoming Association for Mental Health and Substance Abuse. But Summerville called the funding “bandage aid” and said that in two years there would be no funding needed to maintain a 24-hour service.

Training requirements for hotline employees vary from state to state and may require hours of training. The Alaska Crisis Center, for example, has an average of about 50 hours of “classroom time” combined with 30 hours of “shadow time,” Marchuk said.

Hannah Wesolowski, attorney general for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, told CNN that her organization was “really worried” about the increase in demand after people learned about 988 in July and beyond, given that “call centers are struggling to keep up with the demand now. ”

“Some countries are well equipped to respond, while others will rely heavily on national backup centers – which means not every caller will get the value of the local response they urgently need,” she said.

John Draper, executive director of Lifeline and executive vice president of national networks at Vibrant, told CNN that the challenge with 988 lies in providing resources to crisis centers, which he said have been operating for “years”.

And he acknowledged that not every center will have the necessary staff by July, calling it a “long-term construction process.”

“Vibrant’s most intense focus at the moment is to maintain national backup call centers so that by July they can fill those gaps where crisis services are insufficient to respond locally,” Draper said.

Palmieri told CNN that it would take time to build the capacity of the national reserve centers, saying they were currently comparable to the capacity of the local call center.

But in Wesolowski’s opinion, “Ideally, we want these calls to be answered at the local level.”

“Because it’s just a local call center that can connect a person with resources in their community and send emergency services when needed,” she said.

Even without states and communities acting to build the capacity of the local call center, Vesolovski warned, “We are really in a difficult situation.

“The crisis system we want to build is coming together quickly, but there is still a lot of work to be done,” Wesolowski said. “We are in a better place than we were just a few months ago, and the system is improving every day. But it will be a lot of work. ”

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