Jul 13, 2022 - News

Pennsylvania gears up for launch of new 988 mental health hotline

States that have enacted legislation to implement and fund the 988 hotline
Data: National Academy for State Health Policy; Map: Nicki Camberg/Axios

Americans will be able to reach trained crisis counselors at any time by dialing or texting three digits — 988 — starting this Saturday.

  • But there's still some uncertainty over whether Pennsylvania and other states can handle the anticipated rise in outreach once the new mental health hotline number launches.

Driving the news: Xavier Becerra, secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, and other federal officials have expressed concerns that most states aren't prepared to meet long-term needs after the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline transitions from its 10-digit number to the more memorable 988, Politico reports.

Why it matters: The switch to a three-digit number is intended to ease access and emphasize the importance of seeking help in mental health emergencies.

  • "It's the behavioral health counterpart to 911," Matthew Wintersteen, a psychologist and Thomas Jefferson University professor who's part of Pennsylvania's 988 planning team, told Axios. "Having this simple-to-remember, three-digit number will transform the way in which people can get services."

Yes, but: Unlike 911, which was rolled out across the U.S. over decades, the transition to 988 is taking place all at once, roughly two years after it was authorized by the Federal Communications Commission.

  • "There are a lot of things happening quickly," Wintersteen said.
  • Still, Wintersteen doesn't expect the call volume to rise too drastically at first, considering that a nationwide marketing push won't happen until next year.

The big picture: Government officials have been slow to provide funding to already struggling crisis call centers, and some providers have expressed concerns that the anticipated rise in demand will further strain capacity, Axios' Margaret Harding McGill and Adreil Bettelheim report.

  • A coalition of mental health groups is calling on Congress to provide more funding to expand existing crisis call systems and services.

Zoom in: The federal government has doled out money to Pennsylvania to help its 13 call centers prepare for the transition, including a more than $3 million federal grant in April and $340,000 last year.

  • But while some of the state's call centers are well-staffed, others — like True North Wellness Services in York County's more rural Hanover — are having difficulty hiring, the Philadelphia Inquirer reports.

What they're saying: Wintersteen said Pennsylvania call centers are ready and capable of handling the expected demand.

  • He said 85% of the $3 million grant is going directly to workforce development, including hiring staff, expanding hours and increasing pay.

How it works: Dialing 988 will direct you to a trained crisis counselor at a local center.

  • If a local call center doesn't pick up within 60 seconds, you'll be routed to one of Pennsylvania's three regional crisis centers. And if the regional center isn't available, the call will be sent to the national network.

Of note: The 10-digit number will still connect you to the hotline.

What's ahead: The state's 988 planning team, which meets biweekly, will be monitoring call data and volume at each center to determine which areas might need more staffing or additional resources in the future, Wintersteen said.

If you or someone you know may be considering suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 (En español: 1-888-628-9454; Deaf and Hard of Hearing: dial 711 then 1-800-273-8255) or the Crisis Text Line by texting HOME to 741741.


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