The Mass. prepares for launch of ‘988’ mental health helpline: ‘Young people will grow up knowing this number’


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

On July 16, Massachusetts and the states of the country plan to deploy a three-digit code – 988 – that people can call or text to reach a trained volunteer who can help them in their fight. Then-President Trump signed legislation in 2020 creating the new code after supporters pushed to shorten the current lifeline number, 800-273-8255, to make it easier to remember.

People who call the 800 number after the launch of 988 will still be connected to someone who can help them. This includes specific services for veterans (by pressing “1”) and Spanish speakers (by pressing “2”), as well as online chat services accessible for people who are deaf or hard of hearing.

If 988 looks and sounds familiar, then it’s already done. 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 the stigma surrounding needing that care in the first place.

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

Other organizations participating in the launch of 988 alongside the Samaritans include the Framingham-based company Call2Talk, the State 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 the area code.

In this WBUR file photo, a volunteer speaks with a caller on the Samaritans hotline. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The shift to 988 is facing a broad and deep mental health crisis fueled by the COVID-19 pandemic.

State data shows percentage of adults reporting long periods 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 that more than one-third of state residents over the age of 19 reported needing behavioral health care for themselves or for a close relative.

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

While number 988 promises increased access at a critical time, it also increases 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 significantly change the volume of calls we receive – as expected, and that’s a good thing,” she said. “But nobody knows what it is. Nobody knows, ‘Oh, it’s going to be a lot of calls again, and that’s the answer to how we make it work.’ “

Samaritans and other mental health providers are staffing crisis centers to handle the expected surge of new callers as more people discover 988 and memorize it. Marchi said the Samaritans have received support from the state Department of Public Health to help meet the growing demand.

“Recruiting volunteers has long been a priority of ours, to consistently fill that pipeline,” Marchi said. “We know how to do this and we do it well, and we continue to find ways to expand the pipeline to ensure that we have people available, ready to be trained, to take the training, to go through the shifts. .”

Marchi said the Samaritans have always been successful in recruiting young people fresh out of college. But the positions attract people from all demographic backgrounds who want to make a difference in their community, she added. The Samaritans are asking adult volunteers to commit to working 200 hours for nine months, most often in four-hour shifts. Teenagers are asked for 150 hours of volunteer work over the same period.

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

“We’ll help you figure out what needs to be done to make this work as well as possible for everyone who calls,” she said.


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