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New 988 Centers Get More Calls, Need More Funding

For people having a mental heath crisis, calling 988 can potentially be life saving. The new 988 system was launched in mid-July. By one estimate, says calls went up 45 percent nationally during the first week. As people learn more about the help line. some call centers say there are limits to what can be done without more local resources, reports NPR. Michael Colluccio, a call center specialist, has access to more services in his area in Bucks County, a suburb of Philadelphia. Callers can sometimes be connected with services such as homeless shelters, therapists or drug and alcohol counselors. Colluccio's main priority is to listen. By spending more time listening than talking, he says he offers relief, validation and human connection. When he does talk he asks questions gently, searching for specific ways to help. Part of the idea behind 988 is to be an alternative to involving police or ambulances, so Colluccio rarely turns to 911. He would typically use 911 only if someone was an immediate threat to themselves or others. Before the call's end, Colluccio asks a few questions determining if the caller feels suicidal, an important step to make sure each caller is safe after ending the call.

Colluccio asks callers if they would like a call back the next day.

There are more than 200 call centers nationally. Calls are tied to area codes. If nobody picks up locally, the call gets transferred somewhere else. The promise is to always have someone pick up the phone. In some call centers, like Bucks County, callers who need more help than counselors can offer are able have a mobile crew of mental health workers sent to visit them. In Hanover a small town a few hours west, 988 does not have that option. Sometimes workers must put down their headsets, get in their cars and go meet with people as far as an hour away. In rural Centre County, the local 988 call center relies on volunteers. Denise Herr McCann runs it and says her team can call in mobile mental health experts, but she needs more. Suicide prevention call centers have struggled to get funding from local, state and federal sources. With 988, they must meet new federal regulations, such as data collecting and licensure requirements, which requires money. States are largely left to foot the bill for the change to 988. Many call centers doing the actual work have been underfunded for years. The Biden administration has dedicated $432 million toward building the capacity of local and backup call centers, but states must provide the main funding streams. The 2020 law enacting 988 allows states to add a small fee to cell phone bills as a permanent source of funds for 988 and associated mental health services. So far, only four states have done so.


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A daily report co-sponsored by Arizona State University, Criminal Justice Journalists, and the National Criminal Justice Association

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