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A new number some call 'the 911 for suicide prevention' is set to launch

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Posted at 4:14 PM, Jun 29, 2022
and last updated 2022-06-29 19:42:06-04

MILWAUKEE — Some call it the new 911 for mental health. There is a new three-digit number set to launch nationwide on July 16.

Just as emergency responders are ready to help when you dial 911, there will also be people ready to help someone in a mental health crisis with another three-digit number: 988. It will launch July 16.

“I think that in a time of crisis, no one really remembers a 10 digit number that’s out there for help,” said Wisconsin Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin.

Wisconsin has had a suicide and crisis lifeline in place since 2005. So the service itself is not new, just the number that will connect you to it. The legislation to create it was written by Sen. Baldwin.

But a national report by the Rand Corp. found more than half of public health officials across the country feel unprepared to launch this new line because of a lack of financing or staffing for the infrastructure.

Sen. Tammy Baldwin

“It does require a continuing commitment on the part of states and the federal government to make sure that as the volume of calls go up and we're able to help more people, that the resources are there,” said Baldwin.

Caroline Crehan-Neumann, the crisis service coordinator at the Department of Health Services, heads up Wisconsin's transition to 988.

FCC Suicide Hotline-Texting
FILE - A screen displays a notice on an iPhone on Tuesday, Oct. 29, 2019, in New York. U.S. communications regulators are requiring that phone companies allow people to text as well as call a new “988” number for the suicide-prevention hotline. The Federal Communications Commission last summer voted to require phone companies support the 988 number for people to call to reach an existing suicide-prevention hotline. (AP Photo/Jenny Kane, File)

She says the state has pieced together funding through a mix of state and federal grants, including COVID relief funds, but there is some concern for staffing if more calls start coming in.

“Depending on how big the jump and the increases their people may need to wait, but if if that happens we're going to do everything that we can to reduce that,” said Crehan-Neumann.

However, the worry is what will happen if people have to wait.

“I think the concern is that people will hang up. I think a lot of people who are in experiencing emotional distress, your bandwidth is pretty small, your bandwidth is short,” said Crehan-Neumann.

And that could mean lives lost. Data from Children’s Wisconsin shows 29 percent of young adults have a mental illness, 16 percent of teens have contemplated suicide and 7 percent have attempted it.

“This is crucial that if the adequately staffed and the resources are there for referral at a moment of crisis,” said Baldwin.

Currently, DHS says people in Wisconsin wait on average 60 seconds before they are connected to someone. Wisconsin ranks around the top five in the county in state answer rates and 90 percent of calls are picked up by someone in the state. The rest go to a national line.

The ultimate goal when this nationwide line rolls out is to make sure everyone gets the help they need quickly.

“You call 988, that counselor is going to be able to refer you to someone, refer you to a therapist right there down the street from you. We know that being connected to local resources and to our local communities is really important in being supported and having long term good mental health,” said Crehan-Neumann.

If you or someone you know needs help right now, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.

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