988 mental health hotline goes live Saturday

Published 11:32 pm Tuesday, July 12, 2022

By Melissa Patrick

Kentucky Health News

Starting Saturday, July 16, the new behavioral-health crisis hotline number will be 988, much like 911 for medical crises and other emergencies.

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“It’s substance use, mental health, and suicide — so all of the continuum of care,”  Beck Whipple, suicide-prevention coordinator for the state Department of Behavioral Health, Developmental and Intellectual Disabilities, said in a webinar about the 988 rollout.

Callers currently reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline by calling a 10-digit number: 1-800-273-8255 (TALK). This number will remain operational during the 988 transition and after it is completed, according to the Federal Communications Commission.

The 988 system does not use geo-location yet, so Kentuckians who call 988 will be routed to the closest regional call center according to their area code and the phone exchange, said Whipple. If that regional call center is unable to take the call, the call will be redirected to a back-up call center, he said.

Kentucky’s 13 call centers operate through the state’s community mental-health centers, which are able to de-escalate a crisis, make a referral for mental health services, connect the caller with a mobile crisis team, or send emergency medical services.

“About 80 to 85 percent of the calls that come into 988 are de-escalated verbally,” Whipple said.

He said Kentucky’s lifeline call centers have seen an increase in callers since the pandemic, as well as  longer calls with more acute problems, and more first-time callers.

He added that they expect to see even more with the roll-out of 988. At this time, he said Kentucky averages about 20,000 calls a year and that is projected to “grow exponentially.” A slide from the presentation said they expect about 42,600 calls in the next year.

“We’re still very much dealing with the psychological, mental-health impacts of the pandemic and its devastating effects,” Whipple said.

The new call line is not only for people in crisis, it is also for those trying to support people in crisis.

“988 is definitely for that support person, that friend who doesn’t know how to respond to somebody who just unloaded on you? Right? Like, what are the options in your area? 988 can connect you to those options in your area,” Marcie Timmerman, executive director for Mental Health America of Kentucky, said on the webinar.

Funding for the new number comes from several sources. Congress appropriated funds to create it in 2020, the U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration awarded Kentucky $9.5 million in grants, and the state legislature allocated $2.8 million more for its implementation, Linda Blackford reports for the Lexington Herald-Leader.

Timmerman said there are plans to re-introduce legislation in the next General Assembly for a 70-cent mobile phone fee to create a sustainable funding stream for the service, similar to what is taken out for 911 services. This year’s version of that bill, House Bill 373, got one of the six required reading, but was not heard in its assigned committee.

Kentucky plans to do a large scale roll-out of the 988 number in 2023.