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Officials scramble to hire for the 988 mental health crisis hotline

A MARTINEZ, HOST:

A new national mental health crisis number, the three-digit number 988, is rolling out this month. But some states may have a hard time keeping up with call volume. Now, as a caution, this story mentions suicide. Side Effects Public Media's Carter Barrett reports.

CARTER BARRETT: The new 988 crisis line has been billed as 911 for mental health. It's a vast expansion of the long-underfunded National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network. Advocates hope it will ease the burden on police and emergency rooms during a mental health crisis and also help reduce stigma around mental illness. In Springfield, Ill., Memorial Behavioral Health serves as part of the crisis line network. Staff are on call around the clock to talk to people struggling with suicidal thoughts, drug addiction or mental health crises. Director Diana Knaebe says, for years, the call center was staffed by nurses who also had to care for patients.

DIANA KNAEBE: So that staff would answer the phone 24/7. But if they were busy with intakes or with residents in the facility, issues there, then they wouldn't be available to take the call.

BARRETT: Knaebe says they only recently switched to have staff members dedicated to take calls and were able to answer 80% of them versus 20%. That 20% follows statewide trends. During the first three months of 2022, Illinois-based call centers answered just 1 in 5 of all calls to the National Lifeline coming from people in state. The other 80% were redirected to other states or the National Center. And Texas, the next-worst state, answered only 40% of its calls. Underinvestment has plagued Illinois crisis centers for years, leaving them at a disadvantage in preparing them to launch 988. Andy Wade runs the Illinois chapter of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI.

ANDY WADE: You know, you're building on the platform of the suicide prevention line, which is a logical starting point, but that's been under-resourced in Illinois for so long that just ramping that up alone is far from sufficient.

BARRETT: The goal in Illinois is to improve the in-state response rate to 90% within the next year. Call centers across the country are facing similar challenges - staffing call centers with enough qualified counselors and finding a sustainable funding source. And this comes as a federal report predicts that call volume could soar over the next few years. Here's Rachel Bhagwat with NAMI's Chicago office.

RACHEL BHAGWAT: Ideally, we want people to call it, but we do worry that we're going to roll out this number, we're going to make it easier for people to call, and there's going to be no one on the other side of the phone.

BARRETT: John Draper heads the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. While, ideally, calls are answered in state, he says the national call center is ready to manage overflow.

JOHN DRAPER: I can't promise that no one is going to have any wait at all. I can certainly say that if you hold on, you're going to get answered, and you're going to be answered by a counselor that cares about your situation.

BARRETT: Draper says while preparedness for 988 varies by state, he's encouraged by the progress, though a majority of states still lack a dedicated long-term funding source for 988, raising concerns about sustainability of this ambitious national mental health phone number.

For NPR News, I'm Carter Barrett.

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MARTINEZ: If you or someone you know is having thoughts of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK or text HOME to 741741. This story is part of the Carter Center's Mental Health Parity Collaborative, produced in partnership with the Center for Public Integrity. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carter is a reporter based at WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana. A long-time Hoosier, she is thrilled to stay in her hometown to cover public health. Previously, she covered education for WFYI News with a focus on school safety. Carter graduated with a journalism degree from Indiana University, and previously interned with stations in Bloomington, Indiana and Juneau, Alaska.