Monday, January 30, 2023

Callers keep flooding 988 mental health, suicide helpline

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HYATTSVILLE, Md. – When Jamieson Brill answers a crisis call from a Spanish speaker on the national mental health helpline 988, he rarely mentions the word suicide or “suicidio”

Brill, whose family hails from Puerto Rico, knows that just discussing the term in some Spanish-speaking cultures is so offensive that many callers are too scared to even admit they’re calling themselves.

“As strong as the stigma around mental health concerns is in English-speaking cultures, in Spanish cultures it’s threefold,” said Brill, who helps people navigate mental health crises from a small brick building tucked away in Hyattsville, Maryland.

Brill works in one of more than 200 call centers set up across the country, tasked with answering a surge of calls around the clock from people who are thinking about suicide or experiencing a mental health emergency.

with bipartisan support from Congress and just under $1 billion in federal fundingmental health helpline 988 has rapidly expanded its reach in the six months since its launch – racking up over 2 million calls, texts and chat messages.

The number of centers answering calls in Spanish increased from three to seven last year. A pilot line dedicated to LGBTQ youth began taking calls in September. And plans are underway to continue the momentum, with the federal government adding Spanish-language chat and text options later this year and aiming to expand those services into a 24/7 operation for the LGBTQ hotline.

When The phone around the clock launched last summer, it was built into the existing network that complemented the old national hotline, 1-800-273-8255. The new number 988 is designed to be as easy to remember as 911.

It couldn’t have come at a more necessary time: Rates of depression among US adultsoverdose deaths and suicide rates have been on the rise.

“The volume of calls is, in some cases, far beyond what we expected,” said Miriam Delphin-Rittmon, assistant secretary for mental health and substance use at the Department of Health and Human Services. “It lets us know that people are struggling, people are having a hard time. Where I feel angry is that people are connecting with services and support, contrary to their difficulties.”

The 988 helpline recorded 154,585 more calls, texts and chat messages during November 2022 compared to the old national helpline in November 2021, according to the latest data available.

Texting has been particularly popular, with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration noting a 1,227% increase in online texts during that time.

The Veterans Crisis Line — callers can press “1” after texting or dial 988 to reach it — has fielded 450,000 calls, texts and chat messages, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. By the end of the year, the line had grown nearly 10% compared to 2021.

Calls show no sign of slowing down this year, with advisers answering 3,869 calls on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day 2023 – a 30 per cent increase on the previous holiday. The Spanish language line saw a year-over-year increase of 3,800 calls from November 2021 to November 2022.

Meanwhile, some states are considering unveiling their own lines dedicated to certain communities.

In November, Washington became the first state to launch a mental health crisis line dedicated to American Indians and Alaska Natives. Callers in Washington can reach the line by dialing 988 and then pressing “4” to be greeted by one of 13 counselors – all Indigenous – who staff the phones.

Having other Native Americans answer those calls is essential because those who know the culture can immediately decipher some terms that others can’t, said Rochelle Williams, manager of tribal operations for Volunteers of the American West Washington. which oversees the call center. For example, she said, when a caller says a relative is “bothering me,” that immediately sends up a red flag: The person is likely signaling they’re the victim of a sexual assault.

“Who understands the locals better than the locals?” Williams said. “We don’t trust many government programs. Knowing you’re talking to another Indigenous person is really important.”

Williams wants to add chat and text options next. She hopes Washington’s 988 line for Native Americans will become a model for others. She has already given presentations in New Mexico, Oklahoma, Montana and in Canada, which will launch its 988 nationally this year.

States are expected to receive more money to finance the line from t he spending package at the end of the year 1.7 trillion dollarswhich set aside another half billion dollars for the project.

However, long-term funding for the 988 helpline is at risk in some states, which have yet to find a permanent funding plan for it. While the federal government has poured millions of dollars into the project, states are expected to take over the operation and funding of the 988 line — just as they do with 911 emergency services.

So far, less than 20 countries have approved legislation for the permanent financing of their 988 lineaccording to the National Alliance on Mental Health.

In Ohio, for example, advocates are pushing the state legislature to sign off on a 50-cent fee that would be tacked onto cellphone bills, raising roughly $50 million to $55 million each year to operate the line, said Tony Coder of Ohio. Foundation for Suicide Prevention.

“Honestly, lives depend on it,” Coder said. “The need for 988 services is more important than ever, simply because of the fallout and mental health issues from COVID.”

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