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'988' Calls For Mental Health Crises Should Take Load Off Justice System

A countdown is underway for government officials to put a new suicide prevention tool in place. Beginning in mid-July, states will unveiling a new phone number to make it easier to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The number “988” was chosen because officials believe it will become as easy to remember as “911” when dealing with other kinds of emergencies, reports the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. “The goal of 988 is to change the way our community responds to mental health crises,” said Debra Walker of the Missouri Department of Mental Health. “It will serve as the first line of defense to engage individuals experiencing mental health or suicidal crisis.” Walker added that under the new system, "Missouri will have the ability to divert mental health crises away from costly, already burdened resources including our criminal justice and health care resources.” She said Missouri expects to see a reduction in ER visits, inpatient stays, arrests and incarceration.”

Suicide is the 10th-leading cause of death in Missouri, claiming 1,230 lives in 2020, according to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Based on national projections, an estimated 90 percent of 988 crisis calls will be resolved over the phone through intervention. The remaining contacts will need additional follow-up and services. “988 is opening the door for a robust system that can de-escalate mental health crises and connect individuals to the most appropriate care,” Walker said. The U.S. suicide total is at the highest level since World War II, with an increase of 33 percent from 1999 to 2017 alone, says the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Suicide rates are highest among Native American and white populations and higher in rural areas than urban. The move to 988 comes after the 2018 passage of a law directing the Federal Communications Commission to study the use of a three-digit dialing code for the hotline.


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