The US has a new crisis hotline: 988. Is it ready for a spike in calls?

Americans in Distress have a new number to call for help – 988, the revamped National Suicide Prevention Line, billed as mental health 911.

amount, due to air on Saturday and backed by more than $400 million in federal funding, is designed to tackle the rising tide of mental illness in the United States. But concerns remain that understaffed call centers across the country may not be prepared for such a surge.

Many of those who have called Life Line in recent months have hung up before receiving help. About 18 percent of the roughly 1 million phone calls made to Lifeline in the first half of this year were dropped, according to data analysis by The New York Times. An earlier Times analysis similar issues were discovered in March, and the switch to a widely published three-digit phone number is expected to cause additional bandwidth strain.

Xavier Becerra, Minister of Health and Human Services, welcomed the efforts to prepare for 988, while acknowledging that there is a lot of work ahead. “Once you start doing that, there has to be someone to answer the phone,” he said in an interview. “It’s not enough to get a busy signal or be put on hold.”

Hundreds of millions of federal dollars have spurred Lifeline hard over the past six months. The money has helped a chronically underfunded crisis line, long answered by many call centers, often nonprofits that juggle multiple hotlines and rely on both paid consultants and volunteers, to attract additional phone banks across the country, bringing the total from 180 to more than 200.

The funding also strengthened the Hispanic network; national call centers where consultants can answer calls that go unanswered at the local level; and digital messaging services, seen as a critical tool for reaching young people in need of help.

In the first half of 2022, Lifeline text messages and chat lines received about 500,000 contacts, but only about 42 percent of them received responses. However, data provided by the organization that runs Lifeline shows a steady improvement, with response rates rising to 74 percent in June and average wait times dropping from 16 minutes in January to about three minutes last month. There was no significant increase in the number of phone calls answered, although one of 988’s goals is to eventually answer 95 percent of them within 20 seconds.

John Draper oversees Lifeline and is the director of the nonprofit Vibrant Emotional Health, which runs the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration service. mr. Draper pointed to a “huge increase” in responses to digital messages. He predicted that the new investment will lead to better phone response in the coming months, noting that call centers have already been able to keep up with steady volume growth.

“We want to make sure we respond to everyone in a crisis,” he said.

But less than half of the public health officials responsible for the 988 rollout were confident their communities were ready. according to a recent study by the RAND Corporation.

The Lifeline overhaul isn’t just limited to calls, texts, and chats. While data shows that hotlines can resolve about 80 percent of crises without further intervention, the concept behind 988 is that counselors will eventually be able to connect callers with mobile crisis teams who can travel to where they are and as well as short-term mental health. sorting centers.

These changes are expected to reduce law enforcement intervention and reliance on emergency rooms, ultimately saving more lives, advocates say.

New Lifeline comes at a time of rise in mental illness, including that US Surgeon General called “destructive” crisis among youth. Suicide was the 12th leading cause of death for Americans of all ages in 2020. according to the Centers for Disease Control and Preventionand the second leading cause among those aged 10 to 14 and 25 to 34. Every person has died by suicide. 11 minutes in 2020. Many believe the pandemic has exacerbated mental health issues and the revamped hotline is designed to go beyond suicide to help anyone in crisis.

Despite projected increases in volume, questions remain about the 988’s long-term sustainable funding. This is partly because the law establishing it, signed into law by President Donald Trump in October 2020 with bipartisan support, left call center funding primarily to the states. .

While this has given states the ability to raise money for 988 the same way they do for 911, with monthly phone bill fees, only four states authorized the payment of telephone bills. Many other states used grants or general funds or passed other laws to prepare for a new line of life.

“I think 988 represents the best and worst of how America approaches mental health,” said Benjamin F. Miller, psychologist and president of the Well Being Trust for mental health. “At its best, it’s ingenuity, creativity, positioning. At worst, it is a lack of resources, a lack of leadership and a lack of follow through.”

Dr. According to him, Miller is concerned about whether the funding will be continuous, because mental health in the country has always been “an afterthought.”

“This is a marginal aspect of our health care that we continue to avoid investing heavily in,” he said.

Jennifer Piver, chief executive of Mental Health America of Greenville County, South Carolina’s only 988 call center, said federal funding has enabled her to fill eight new positions. But she feared it wouldn’t be enough in the long run and said her team is seeking grants and raising money through a GoFundMe page.

“I am sure that on Saturday we will be fine. Pivert said. “But as you know, handling this growth is not something we are ready for financially in terms of staff.” The center answers more than 80 percent of calls in the state, but if funding stays the same, she said, “we could see a drop pretty quickly to 50 percent, 40 percent, even 30 percent if you factor in some systems that will change. ”

national labor shortage also affected the ability to hire and retain employees. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a long page on their website. which lists job opportunities across the country.

The workforce was a mental health issue “long before the pandemic,” said Hanna Wesolowski, chief advocacy officer for the National Alliance on Mental Illness, who noted that burnout is also a concern for professionals already working in the field.

Although a lot of work has been done since the signing of Law No. 988, Ms. Vesolovsky said: “We are trying to build a comprehensive system, and this will take more than two years.”

Representative Tony Cardenas, a California Democrat and a top supporter of 988 in Congress, noted that 911, which was created over 50 years ago, “didn’t start without hiccups.”

Despite the uncertainty, defenders remain hopeful that the 988 will live up to its promises.

“People’s lives are at stake, so we have to get there,” said Preston Mitchum, director of advocacy at the Trevor Project, a crisis intervention organization for LGBTQ youth.

“We’ll get there.”