‘What’s on your mind?’: Massachusetts call centers, mental health provider ready for rollout of national 988 hotline

SPRINGFIELD — With 988, a nationwide mental health hotline going live July 16, agencies that will take the calls are staffing up and advocates are looking forward to a streamlined way for people in crisis to get help.

The three-digit number is expected to be easier to remember and access than the existing national Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

The advent of 988 does not mean the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline goes away. Dialing either number will route callers to the same services, no matter which number they use, according to the state.

But questions remain ahead of the January 2023 launch of community mental health centers expected to help those callers, said Katherine Mague, senior vice president at Behavioral Health Network in Springfield.

BHN is the local emergency services provider now, and hopes to win a contract to be one of the local one-stop community mental health centers under the state’s new behavioral health roadmap.

Mague said she also has questions about how 988 will interface with 911 emergency services operators.

“The best I can say is that those teams are meeting and will continue to meet to talk about how we deal with calls that come into the wrong place,” she said.

Fewer than half of the public health officials helping to roll out the new hotline said they were confident they were prepared for the task, according to a study released in June by the Rand Corp.

The Call2Talk center at the United Way of Pioneer Valley in Springfield will soon start handling calls to the national mental health crisis number, 988. (Don Treeger / The Republican)

The new hotline was established under federal law in 2020. Congress has set aside $280 million in federal funds and Massachusetts has $10 million for it in next year’s budget. Massachusetts is not one of the four states — Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Washington — that have implemented a surcharge on phone bills to fund the program.

Today, 911 gets many behavioral health calls that could best be answered by others and referred to mental health professionals instead police or firefighters.

“The other thing is people have been trained since childhood — if you have an emergency you call 911,” Mague said.

Sometimes 911 calls result in responses that escalate toward violence, said Donna Bunn, president of NAMI Western Massachusetts, the local branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness.

“I’m hoping that this number (988) would be a great support to the community,” Bunn said. “This will focus more on immediate crisis support services that are welcoming and not coercive and meet the preferences of those seeking care.”

There are five agencies in Massachusetts that will take the calls, just as they take calls that come in on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline now. They include Framingham-based Call2Talk, run by United Way organizations, with a local office on Main Street in Springfield.

Other call centers are run by the Samaritans in Boston, on Cape Cod, the South Coast and in the Merrimack Valley. Call2Talk’s Springfield center is the only one in Western Massachusetts.

Call2Talk has converted many of its 100 or so call-takers from volunteers to paid staffers working longer hours, said Eileen Davis, United Way Tri County vice president in charge of Call2Talk and Mass211, a service that connects callers to health and human services.

The most recent class of new call-takers was unusually large, with 20 students. Both the state and federal governments assisted call centers this spring with recruiting efforts meant to build up a pool of paid and volunteer call-takers.

Most call-takers are in Framingham, Davis said. The Springfield satellite only has room for three. But adding people in Framingham helps Western Massachusetts because calls are transferred across the system until an available call-taker is found.

The system is expected to get more calls after 988 goes online and gets publicized, Davis said.

“It’s hard to say. I do think people will try it, just to see,” she said.

Numbers have already been going up, Davis said, part of a trend of more people facing crises in the pandemic and its aftermath.

In 2016, the first year Call2Talk was available 24/7, it got 28,000 calls. Last year it was 98,000, and so far in the first half of 2022 its tracking to break 100,000.

“Just look at everything that is going on,” she said. “Ukraine, Roe v. Calf. Inflation. There are a lot of stressors on people’s lives.”

Call takers are trained to ask the caller’s name, Davis said.

“What’s on your mind?” she said. “What have you called today? Then that conversation is going to start.”

Mague said some callers are regulars.

“They just want that friendly voice,” she said.

Others really shouldn’t be on the suicide or crisis line, but need help with an appointment or a prescription. The challenge, Mague said, is directing those callers to the appropriate services. That’s part of why the state’s new one-stop community mental health coming in January will be so helpful.

Davis said call-takers are trained to find out if the callers are planning to hurt themselves. Do they have the means? Is there a weapon? poison? pills?

Sometimes the caller can be set up with a human services provider. Sometimes call-takers will need to alert local providers like Behavioral Health Network. Mague said BHN has providers and mobile teams that can go out to people’s homes.

The hotline avoids sending people to hospital emergency rooms that are crowded and ill-equipped for mental health care. But sometimes that’s the best response.

Sometimes 911 and a police or fire response is appropriate, Davis said.

“No matter what you are calling for, we can help you with that,” she said.

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