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The US suicide hotline 988 will be launched, but many states may not be ready for Reuters

© Reuters. A suicide prevention sign appears on a protective fence at the George Washington Bridge crossing in New York City, New York, USA on January 12, 2022. REUTERS / Mike Segar

By Barbara Goldberg

NEW YORK (Reuters) – In six months, 988 are headed to the U.S. suicide hotline or as a shortcut to emails as the pandemic is growing in need of mental health services. But many states are lagging behind in deployment, and some have been struggling to cope with requests for assistance even before the three-digit number was predicted.

The National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800-273-8255, will remain in effect along with 988. More than 2.1 million callers called 800-273-8255 in 2020. So a number that is as easy to remember as 911 means more calls. Implementing 988 requires increasing call center capacity, increasing crisis response, and expanding the number.

States have known that 988, which was due to be launched on July 16, would come and be in operation since President Donald Trump signed the Suicide Phone Nomination Act in late 2020. But the 988 law includes measures to pay for the expected increase in calls, only four states have approved – Virginia, Nevada, Washington and Colorado, according to the National Mental Health Alliance (NAMI).

Few states have the resources, such as mobile crisis groups, to respond to calls for help. Crisis services across the state are available or are increasing in Virginia, Utah, Oregon, Washington, Nevada and Colorado, according to NAMI.

“In some places, you’re probably in good shape,” said Hannah Wesolowski, a spokeswoman for NAMI, the national nonprofit mental health organization. “You can call 988 and there will be relatively strong mobile crisis groups and crisis infrastructure. But elsewhere, good luck.”

Margarita Alegria, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, is concerned that state inequalities are growing “when the U.S. suffers from a mental health crisis, especially among young people, now exacerbated by COVID.”

“Differences cost lives from one state to another and can lead to unnecessary deaths, especially for people of color who do not have a good alternative to disproportionately good services in these crises,” Alegria said.

There will be more than 46,000 suicides in the United States by 2020.

Some calls to Lifeline are routed to a nationwide network protection center because local centers are not strong.

“When calls are routed to out-of-state centers, crisis callers wait two to three times longer, receive fewer links to effective local care, and are more likely to cancel calls,” Lifeline said in the report.

Legislation to establish Washington state phone user quotas was enacted in 2021 and will raise about $ 46 million a year to cover most of the cost of expanding the state’s call center, said Rep. Tina Orwall, a Democrat representing Des Moines. , which protected the bill. Phone users will be charged 24 cents on their monthly bill for each line or on the retail sale of their prepaid wireless service, and the rate will increase to 40 cents on January 1, 2023.

“It’s a difficult time to raise rates,” Orwall said. “That being said, we are in a constant pandemic and more people are suffering from anxiety, depression and other behavioral health problems.”

Washington expects more than double the number of telephone line employees, Orwall said.

In December, the Federal Department of Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services announced it would provide $ 282 million in grants to support 988 efforts – $ 177 million to strengthen and expand existing Lifeline network operations and telephone infrastructure, including services such as a Spanish network. speakers, plus $ 105 million to create staff in local crisis call centers in the states.

Wyoming is struggling to improve its skills. Wyoming Health Department spokeswoman Kim Deti said plans include expanding call center hours and services to provide chat, text messaging, and geolocation “so Wyoming people with an out-of-state phone number will be directed to the Wyoming-based call center. still. ”

Republican Gov. Mark Gordon has advised Parliament to approve $ 7 million for the next two-year budget for 988. He has since denied whether the parliament will approve the budget request, which will be considered at the next session, which will take 20 days from mid-February.

“Sustainable funding for state call centers has been the first hurdle in Wyoming,” Detik said.

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