Jul 13, 2022 - News

Arizona prepares for launch of "988" for mental health emergencies

Data: National Academy for State Health Policy; Map: Nicki Camberg/Axios

A new 911-style helpline for people facing mental health crises will launch across the United States on Saturday.

What's happening: 988, which will forward callers to one of 200 call centers across the country, will become the three-digit number to call instead of the preexisting 800 number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline (NSPL),

  • The U.S. Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) established the 1-800-273-8255 lifeline in 2005.
  • People will still be able to reach it through that number. ​​

Why it's important: Though the NSPL has been around for nearly two decades, the new three-digit number will make it more accessible, said CJ Loiselle, crisis administrator at the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System (AHCCCS).

What's new: As the NSPL's name suggests, its focus has long been on suicide prevention, but the revamped 988 system will expand to cover a broader range of mental health crises.

What isn't new: The state has its own mental health helpline, the Arizona Crisis System, which Loiselle describes as a "full crisis care continuum" for people experiencing mental health crises.

  • When people call the line, a clinician who's trained in crisis de-escalation and suicide prevention builds rapport and assess a caller's risk level.
  • If a caller needs more care than the clinician can provide over the phone, a mobile crisis response team can be dispatched.
  • Because Arizona already has a more comprehensive system of the kind that SAMHSA is establishing under 988, AHCCCS, mental health providers and others in the state have helped guide the NSPL's transition, Loiselle tells Axios.

The big picture: Loiselle says the national line gets about 3,000 calls in Arizona each month, compared with about 35,000 to the Arizona Crisis System.

  • The Arizona Crisis System will continue operating after the 988 system goes into effect, though Loiselle says they may reassess if the state helpline becomes unnecessary or redundant.
  • Some public health officials have expressed concerns that the national system won't have adequate funding or staffing, which Loiselle says is one of the reasons Arizona will continue operating its state-level system.

The Arizona Crisis System and the NSPL both contract with the same vendor, so callers to either line will reach staff from Solari Crisis and Human Services.

  • In southern Arizona, services for the state helpline are provided by Envolve People Care, though Solari will begin serving the entire state in October.

Context: Many states have enacted legislation related to the advent of the 988 system, though Arizona is not one of them.

  • Much of the state-level legislation creates funding streams, establishes task forces and adopts rules and regulations.
  • AHCCCS created its own 988 advisory committee and received federal grant money from SAMHSA.
  • Loiselle says AHCCCS will advocate for legislation in Arizona if it becomes necessary.

Editor's note: This story was updated to show the state contracts with Envolve People Care to service southern Arizona (not La Frontera Empact).

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