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Nation launches 988, universal mental health crisis line

Effective Saturday, calling the simple three-digit hotline will connect people with crisis support in the same way that 911 dials up emergency services.

PORTLAND, Ore. — An exciting change has arrived in the nation's efforts to bolster mental health resources. Saturday marks the launch of 988, the three-digit hotline for getting help in a mental health crisis — meaning that help is now accessible in the same way that emergency services are through 911.

The big lingering concern is whether Oregon is prepared for what could be a surge in calls prompted by the greater accessibility of the resource. Stakeholders say that the state should be on the right track. Hotlines have been working to hire more call takers, and the initial bump in call volume is expected to level off soon before following a steadier upward trajectory in the next few years.

"We are giving our two 988 call centers the resources and staff to train and build up capacity to handle the anticipated increase in call volume, and we're prepared for that," said Rusha Grinstead, behavioral health policy analyst with the Oregon Health Authority.

In June, KGW's Pat Dooris spoke with Dwight Holton, head of Lines for Life. Call takers at the Portland-based nonprofit help 37,000 people per year with a variety of issues involving mental health and drug abuse. The current phone number, 800-273-8255, is 10 digits long. As of Saturday, they can be reached by simply dialing 988.

"Really excited. 988 is gonna be a new service, a new way to reach help when you're in crisis," said Holton.

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As CEO of Lines for Life, Holton offered ideas during the development of the new nationwide plan. He believes that the simple number will make a big difference.

"We've had, for many years, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline," Holton said. "What 988 is gonna do is transform that by making it super easy to get help when you're in crisis or when you see someone else in crisis. Just like we have 911 for when you have a police or fire emergency, we'll have 988 for when there's a mental health crisis."

One of the things Holton mentioned is key — the hotline will also be available to call when someone else is in crisis, not just the caller. The 988 number will allow you to report when people seem to be struggling, and when things work as intended, a mental health specialist will respond to contact them.

The idea, similar to Portland Street Response, is to take some of the load from police and emergency dispatchers — not just in big cities but in any community in the U.S.

"We believe there's a real opportunity here to take some of that need and bring it to 988, because lots of the folks that are calling 911 are really calling about a mental health challenge," Holton said. "And that's not an appropriate law enforcement role — that's not what they're trained to do and it can be dangerous."

RELATED: Oregon Department of Education launches website addressing mental health

It remains to be seen how this part of the program will work at the outset, when these kinds of crisis response programs are still in their infancy — if they exist at all — in many areas of the country.

But Oregon may be ahead of the curve compared to many other states. Portland Street Response is expanding, if overwhelmed by the number of calls for service. Meanwhile, its Eugene-area forerunner practically set the standard that other nascent crisis response programs aspire to. The Crisis Assistance Helping Out On The Streets (CAHOOTS) team from White Bird Clinic has been operating for more than 30 years, and it's only getting more attention over time.

The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline was authorized by Congress back in 2005. It now has 180 independently operated and funded local call centers. The national network also includes 38 call and chat programs and three that are specifically for Spanish speakers.

Lines for Life is just one component of the national program. The nonprofit's counterpart down in Marion County, for example, is called Northwest Human Services.

As of July 16, all of these call centers share the 988 phone number. Anyone calling will be routed to the closest one based on area code. The goal is to give someone a person to talk with — and if needed, someone to talk with in person. If necessary they can also provide someone a place to go.

It's an ambitious program that will be paid for by the federal government. It's expected to cost taxpayers $282 million in 2022.

In Portland, Holton thinks the new program with its new services and 988 phone number will make a big difference.

"It's all about no wrong door, it's all about making it easy for people to get connected with help and hope," said Holton, "and easy to connect people who are trying to help somebody else with help and hope too."

RELATED: Counselor gives parents advice on talking to LGBTQ+ youth about mental health

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