October 5, 2022


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3-digit number for mental health care response opens nationwide on Saturday | Local News


Starting Saturday, when people call, text or chat 988, they will be connected with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline.

Counselors on the line, formerly known as the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, have responded to people in crisis through a 10-digit phone number since 2005. Though the lifeline’s 10-digit number will remain in effect, the new three-digit number will be available across the country. It aims to eliminate barriers for those seeking mental health care.

“Talking about mental and behavioral health is an important part of reducing stigma,” Gov. Tony Evers said in a statement Friday. “The nationwide transition to 988, an easy-to-remember 3-digit number, will provide greater access to counseling services across our state and country and will undoubtedly save lives.”

Callers to the crisis line will be connected with a trained counselor. Calls from as many Wisconsin residents as possible will be answered by counselors in the state familiar with local communities, cultures and resources, the Wisconsin Department of Health Services said.

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Though the lifeline is a national program, local care is a priority, said Caroline Crehan Neumann, DHS crisis services coordinator. It is useful for counselors to have a relationship with nearby mental health agencies and emergency medical services, she said.

Several lifeline call centers in the state have decided not to make the 988 transition. Crisis responders will be able to transfer calls to those local centers, Neumann said.

“Sixty-five out of 72 counties have crisis lines,” said Neumann. “Some of their corresponding lines will not be dissolving. We see them as the bedrock of crisis response in Wisconsin — 988 is a potential gateway.”

The lifeline is also rebranding from a suicide lifeline to a suicide and crisis lifeline. That change helps ensure counselors are able to help more people suffering from mental health symptoms nationwide.

“Not everyone is suicidal who needs to talk to someone,” Neumann said. “Opening up (the lifeline’s) function as a mental health crisis hotline will provide care to many more people.”

In fact, only 30% of current calls to the lifeline are currently related to suicidal thoughts, said Shelly Missall with Family Services of Northeast Wisconsin. Often, people call to talk about financial issues, relationship issues and school bullying, among other topics, she added.

Over the next year, Neumann said, DHS is projecting a 93% increase in calls to the lifeline. She said local and national call centers are staffing accordingly and looking into hiring remote workers, as well.

Mental health care

Starting Saturday, when people call, text or chat 988, they will be connected with the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. 

Wisconsin has received a grant of $1.7 million over two years from the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Those dollars are going straight to hiring and capacity concerns, Neumann said.

“Long term, we hope 988 will integrate itself into society,” Neumann said. “Someday, people will chuckle at the idea of never having 988. Our kids and our kids’ kids will have 988 … hopefully, it will change history forever.”

Mental health lifelines are proven to work, said Mary Kay Battaglia, executive director at the National Alliance of Mental Illness Wisconsin. Some 80% of calls to the National Suicide Prevention Hotline are resolved through connection and conversation, she said.

Co-responder models

Though 988 will undoubtedly expand mental health care access, Battaglia said, it is just the first step in a larger effort to “decriminalize” mental health care in Wisconsin.

“I always use the example that it’s as if your dad was having a heart attack,” she said. “I doubt they would send two police cars to your house. That’s what happens with a mental health crisis.”

Several communities around Madison have already begun to implement alternatives to police response through “co-responder models.” These methods utilize health care when addressing mental health-related calls to police.

Co-responder models operate differently from community to community. Sometimes police officers have a mental health professional with them when they are responding, while other times they have a mental health professional on call.

“We’ve seen real benefits to this system,” Battaglia said. “The person has real care instead of feeling like a criminal. Mental health calls don’t need to be handled as a criminal issue by law enforcement.”

Cell phone

Counselors on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline have responded to people in crisis through a 10-digit phone number since 2005. Starting Saturday, you can reach them by just dialing 988.

Bigger picture

DHS said 988 is part of a larger transformation in the state’s system for behavioral health care.

The department is developing a statewide number to offer care and peer support from people who have experienced a mental health crisis, DHS announced Friday. The service will be accessible throughout the state.

The state is also considering building a mobile behavioral health crisis response, DHS said. The service is intended to provide mental health care whenever and wherever a person needs it.

Additionally, the state has begun developing regional crisis stabilization facilities across Wisconsin to provide an alternative to hospitalization in mental health crises. The change is necessary because many people experiencing a mental health crisis have been driven more than four hours in a police car to the nearest mental health center, Battaglia said.

“If you had to drive four hours to get help for a heart attack, there would be much more outrage and uproar,” she said. “988 is just scratching the surface. We need to do a solid evaluation of our current system and find ways to support this response. Right now, we have a failed system.”

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