Suicide prevention line changing to simple, 988 phone number

Jul. 15—MANKATO — The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline will shift Saturday to a simpler, 988 phone number, giving mental health advocates hope that more people will remember what number to call or text during a crisis.

The free 24/7 help line's number has been 1-800-273-8255 since 2005. People experiencing a crisis can still call the 10-digit number after July 16 to connect to counselors trained to listen, provide support and connect the caller to local resources if needed.

It just won't be as convenient as dialing or texting 988, which is the point of switching to the three-digit code.

"When you're in crisis, you need that help instantaneously," said Beth Tietz of the Yellow Ribbon Suicide Prevention Program in Mankato. "You don't want to be fumbling around trying to remember the number."

Yellow Ribbon's programs include public education on depression symptoms, the warning signs for suicide and normalizing asking for help during mental health crises. They encourage use of the national help line.

Making the number much simpler is a fantastic change, said Jeanne Reed of Brown County's Yellow Ribbon program. Board members re-established the organization in April after being on hold for several years — a Sept. 17 awareness and prevention event is planned at New Ulm's German Park.

"It's very hard to remember a 1-800 number, so having that really easy is kind of like 911," she said. "No one forgets about that."

Calling 911 is still an option for people in mental health distress. Shifting to 988 for suicide prevention services merely adds a more specific resource for them.

Having a more memorable number is likely to increase the number of calls to the service, according to the line's federal and nonprofit operators. With rising call numbers come rising concerns about already stretched call centers being able to meet the needs.

Minnesota's in-state answer rate was 76% between January and May, according to meeting notes from the Minnesota Department of Health's quarterly update on June 14. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, or SAMHSA, set a goal for states to reach 90% answer rates for 988 calls, texts or chats.

Between the 76% in-state answer rate from the 10-digit number and a 25% to 30% anticipated increase in calls to 988, reaching the 90% goal will be challenging, said Sue Abderholden, executive director of the National Alliance on Mental Illness, or NAMI, in Minnesota.

"Since we struggled to meet 100% of them already, we do know that when the calls get routed somewhere else there's a further delay," she said.

The more calls answered by counselors outside of Minnesota, the less connection to resources within the state.

The four crisis call centers tasked with handling 988 calls within Minnesota already cover wide geographic areas. Blue Earth, Nicollet and Brown counties actually fall within the region covered by the Greater Twin Cities United Way, which also includes Hennepin and Ramsey counties and 10 others either near the Twin Cities or in south-central Minnesota.

Despite an anticipated increase in calls, the Minnesota Legislature didn't pass additional funding for 988 call centers in the health department's omnibus supplement budget bill before the session petered out in May.

Funding would've allowed for expanded staffing at call centers, Abderholden said. NAMI will again lobby lawmakers to pass more funding to support the program next session.

"We'll be back," she said. "I know the health department will as well to try get more of that money so we can actually keep more of the calls in Minnesota."

As it stands, the health department has $1.3 million for the 988 program from the state's general fund and $922,000 from a SAMHSA federal grant. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reportedly projected Minnesota to need $7.3 million to fully support 988 operations in the first year after the transition.

In Brown County, the Yellow Ribbon program's philosophy is it's OK to ask for help, said Reed, who co-chairs the group with Jessica Fischer Hoffmann.

And a greater number of people asking for help would require more trained people to answer their calls — as well as support services for the counselors given the difficulty of their jobs.

"Hopefully if that does happen we can find more funding to promote people to work for these call centers," Reed said.

Minnesota has at least one important leg up on some states as the switch to 988 looms.

If 988 counselors identify that someone needs immediate help on a call, they can contact mobile crisis teams to respond. Horizon Home's South Central Crisis Center has mobile teams covering Blue Earth, Nicollet and Brown counties and seven other area counties.

Some states are essentially having to build mobile crisis teams from the ground up while facing an increase of calls to 988. Whereas Minnesota has mobile crisis teams covering every county already, Abderholden said, so whatever counselor a caller reaches through 988 in Minnesota should be able to connect them to existing mobile crisis services.

Follow Brian Arola @BrianArola