988 national suicide prevention hotline launches in July. What will it mean for South Dakotans?

·6 min read

A new national suicide prevention hotline, 988, will go live July 16 all over the country, including South Dakota.

It's intended to be a universal, easy-to-remember three-digit number to call for mental health crises and is open 24/7, 7 days a week.

The 988 number will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and act as a "care traffic control center" toward quality crisis care coordination, in real time, with follow-up support, said state Department of Social Services Cabinet Secretary Laurie Gill in an emailed statement to the Argus Leader.

Helpline Center has been working with DSS and 911 centers across South Dakota to facilitate the transition.

More: South Dakota looks to adopt 988 national suicide hotline

The center's CEO, Janet Kittams, says their 211 and 988 teams have been gearing up for July's launch date in the past year, with a few positions remaining open to fill before 988 goes live.

988 to be 'transformational' for state crisis response for behavioral health issues

The Helpline Center is the state's only Lifeline crisis center answering the national suicide line, said Gill.

The 988 program is intended to provide support for people needing help with mental health, substance use or suicide crisis and emotional distress.

"The goal of 988 in South Dakota is to strengthen the existing Lifeline network, implement a unified crisis standard of care, ensure everyone gets the help they need, when they need it; and link those in crisis to community-based services," Gill said.

A 211 Helpline Center worker fields calls at their connection center in Sioux Falls, taken in March 2022.
A 211 Helpline Center worker fields calls at their connection center in Sioux Falls, taken in March 2022.

The blended call center has acted as a one-stop call hub for people looking for local resources and information on housing, food, financial assistance programs, disaster response and other community and government programs.

With the introduction of 988, Kittams says the state's crisis response system will have an easy starting point when a person, or their loved one, is experiencing a behavioral health crisis.

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"The focus leading up to July is to ensure stakeholders, including mental health providers, are aware of the roll-out and can raise awareness with the individuals that they serve," stated Gill.

What's the difference between 211 and 988?

When 988 is introduced, the Helpline Center will have two teams of staff in the call center — the 988 team and the 211 team, explained Kittams.

Compassionate, trained mental health counselors will answer 988 and provide hope during a difficult time, she said. By July 16, the 988 team will start taking calls from South Dakotans with behavioral health related issues and crisis situations, while the 211 team will solely focus on providing social service information and referrals for health and human service resources.

Chief Executive Officer of Helpline Center, Janet Kittams, poses for a portrait.
Chief Executive Officer of Helpline Center, Janet Kittams, poses for a portrait.

Each team will primarily be focused on their area of expertise, but will also provide support for each other as needed.

"211 staff are trained in identifying and accessing resources for callers, while 988 staff have advanced degrees related to behavioral health and will be focused on crisis assessment, de-escalation and supporting callers in emotional distress," said Kittams.

Helpline Center's teams will work in collaboration with 911 centers, typically fielding a bulk of mental health calls, to divvy up appropriate calls for 988 so they can be seamlessly transferred, said Kittams.

"The ultimate goal is to provide a better experience for the person or family member experiencing a mental health crisis," she said.

The original 1-800-273-8255 number will still be available to call, even after 988 launches in July.

Alleviating burdens for state law enforcement's mental health crisis response

Currently, over 80% of calls received by trained crisis counselors at centers like the Helpline Center are de-escalated on the phone, according to Kittams, reducing the need to dispatch law enforcement.

"988 is collaborating with 911 centers statewide and locally, we’re working with our partner agencies just to ensure citizens in mental health crisis are connected with the resources they need," said Aimee Chase, deputy director of metro communications in Sioux Falls.

South Dakota's current crisis response system relies on 911 and law enforcement to be first responders to a behavioral health crisis, said Gill. Although police agencies are trained to provide support in these situations, having trained mental health clinicians on staff serving as first responders will allow law enforcement to focus on public safety, she said.

The entrance of the Helpline Center new Sioux Falls location on 3817 S Elmwood Ave, taken on Thursday, May 19, 2022.
The entrance of the Helpline Center new Sioux Falls location on 3817 S Elmwood Ave, taken on Thursday, May 19, 2022.

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"Currently, many times, law enforcement travel great distances to access crisis stabilization services or use a local jail or emergency department," Gill stated. "These options can be more costly and may take up resources not intended to serve in this capacity."

With the development of Appropriate Regional Facilities, Gill says South Dakotans will also be able to receive short-term crisis stabilization services in a less restrictive setting closer to their home and community.

As more and more officers getting trained in mental health and taking Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) training classes, Captain Adam Zishka at the Minnehaha County Sheriff’s Office told the Argus Leader back in April that he's hopeful of what 988's rollout will mean for his officers and the rising number of mental health calls they've had to respond to in the recent years.

"I strongly feel with 988 and our MCT program, we have made changes that have helped," said Zishka at the time. "The reality is, though, a lot of these calls are dangerous and... quite frankly there's no one sticking their hands up to go solo on these calls."

Where's the funding? How will South Dakotans learn about 988?

The funding for 988 in South Dakota comes from one-time supplement funding to support the federal rollout in the first year of implementation, said Gill. The $130,000 grant was awarded by Vibrant Emotional Health, the nonprofit administrator of the new 988 dialing code for the Lifeline.

Once that funding runs out, DSS will be exploring other options for funding, according to Gill.

As for educating South Dakotans on the new mental health crisis number, DSS says they'll work with the Helpline Center to raise awareness. The center will be focusing on an education campaign right when 988 is implemented to inform South Dakotans all over the state of the new phone number, said Kittams.

Informational graphic on the 988's rollout in South Dakota, provided by the South Dakota Department of Social Services website.
Informational graphic on the 988's rollout in South Dakota, provided by the South Dakota Department of Social Services website.

"It is our understanding that national awareness efforts will also be supported through our federal partners," said Gill.

Although workforce shortages continue to be an obstacle for crisis response and mental health care, DSS formed a stakeholder coalition to help guide the enhancement of the state's crisis delivery service system and 988's rollout.

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Key factors they considered were workforce availability and retention for sustainable operations, building capacity for local response and receiving facilities (Appropriate Regional Facilities), promoting 988 through local providers; and monitoring actual call volume compared to projections to determine the long-term support needed, said Gill.

"DSS recognizes that workforce continues to be a challenge across many professions in South Dakota," Gill said.

Federal ARPA money in Medicaid expenditures for home and community-based services is currently trickling down to address workforce challenges, telehealth and assistive technology and COVID-related expenses, said Gill.

Email human rights reporter Nicole Ki at nki@argusleader.com or follow on Twitter at @_nicoleki.

This article originally appeared on Sioux Falls Argus Leader: What new 988 national suicide hotline number means for South Dakotans