‘What’s on your mind?’: Massachusetts call centers, mental health provider ready for national 988 hotline rollout

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SPRINGFIELD – With 988, a national mental health hotline going live on July 16, agencies that will respond to calls are staffing up and advocates eagerly await a streamlined way for people in mental health crisis. acquire help.

The three-digit number should be easier to remember and access than the existing National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

The advent of 988 does not mean that the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is going away. Dialing either number will route callers to the same services regardless of the number they are using, depending on the state.

But questions remain ahead of the January 2023 launch of community mental health centers meant to help these callers, said Katherine Mague, senior vice president of the Behavioral Health Network in Springfield.

BHN is now the local provider of emergency services and hopes to win a contract to be one of the local one-stop community mental health centers under the state’s new behavioral health roadmap.

Mague said she also has questions about how 988 will interface with 911 emergency services operators.

“The best I can say is that these teams are meeting and will continue to meet to discuss how we deal with calls that come in the wrong place,” she said.

According to a study published in June by the Rand Corp.

The United Way of Pioneer Valley’s Call2Talk center in Springfield will soon begin handling calls to the national mental health crisis number, 988. (Don Treeger/The Republican)

The new hotline was created under federal law in 2020. Congress set aside $280 million in federal funds, and Massachusetts set aside $10 million for it in next year’s budget. Massachusetts is not one of the four states – Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Washington – who have implemented a surcharge on telephone bills to finance the program.

Today, 911 receives many calls related to behavioral health that might be better answered by other people and referred to mental health professionals rather than the police or fire department.

“The other thing is that people have been trained since childhood – if you have an emergency, you call 911,” Mague said.

Sometimes calls to 911 result in responses that escalate into violence, said Donna Bunn, president of NAMI Western Massachusetts, the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“I hope that number (988) would be a great support to the community,” Bunn said. “It will focus more on immediate crisis support services that are welcoming and non-coercive and respond to the preferences of those seeking care.”

There are five agencies in Massachusetts that will take calls, just as they now take calls that come in on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. They include Framingham-based Call2Talk, run by United Way organizations, with a local office on Main Street in Springfield.

Other call centers are operated by the Samaritans in Boston, Cape Cod, the South Coast and the Merrimack Valley. Call2Talk’s Springfield center is the only one in Western Massachusetts.

Call2Talk has converted many of its roughly 100 volunteer call takers into paid employees working longer hours, said Eileen Davis, United Way Tri County vice president in charge of Call2Talk and Mass211, a service that connects callers. to health and social services.

The most recent class of new telephonists was unusually large, with 20 students. Both State and federal governments assisted call centers this spring with recruitment efforts aimed at building a pool of paid and volunteer operators.

Most of the telephone operators are in Framingham, Davis said. The Springfield satellite only has room for three. But adding people to Framingham helps Western Massachusetts, as calls are transferred through the system until an available call taker is found.

The system should receive more calls after 988 goes live and is advertised, Davis said.

“It’s hard to say. I think people will try, just to see,” she said.

The numbers have already risen, Davis said, as part of a trend of more people facing crises in the pandemic and its aftermath.

In 2016, the first year Call2Talk was available 24/7, it received 28,000 calls. Last year it was 98,000, and so far in the first half of 2022 its following has topped 100,000.

“Just watch everything that’s going on,” she said. “Ukraine, Roe v. Wade. Inflation. There are many stressors in people’s lives.

Operators are trained to ask for the caller’s name, Davis said.

“What’s on your mind?” she says. “What are you calling today?” Then this conversation will begin.

Mague said some callers are regulars.

“They just want that friendly voice,” she said.

Others really shouldn’t be on the suicide or emergency line, but need help with an appointment or a prescription. The challenge, Mague said, is directing these callers to the appropriate services. That’s part of why the state’s new one-stop community mental health coming in January will be so helpful.

Davis said call takers are trained to know if callers plan to injure themselves. Can they afford it? Is there a weapon? Poison? Pills ?

Sometimes the caller can be set up with a human service provider. Sometimes operators will need to alert local providers like Behavioral Health Network. Mague said BHN has vendors and mobile teams that can travel to people’s homes.

The hotline avoids sending people to hospital emergency rooms which are crowded and ill-equipped for mental health care. But sometimes it’s the best answer.

Sometimes 911 and a police or fire department response is appropriate, Davis said.

“No matter what you ask for, we can help you,” she said.

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