Beginning Saturday, dialing 9-8-8 will connect callers to a mental heal crisis call center nationwide, based on the caller’s area code. It’s an expansion of extant Careline programs. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Beginning Saturday, dialing 9-8-8 will connect callers to a mental heal crisis call center nationwide, based on the caller’s area code. It’s an expansion of extant Careline programs. (Michael S. Lockett / Juneau Empire)

Nation stands up mental health crisis hotline

Three-digit number will connect callers not with police or fire, but with a mental crisis lifeline.

Editor’s note: This article includes references to suicide, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is available 24/7 at 800-273-8255. As of July 16, you can also dial 988.

Nationwide, states including Alaska are standing up a Suicide and Crisis Lifeline to assist those in need just by dialing 9-8-8.

The crisis line, which goes live on July 16, will adapt existing crisis call centers to help assist Americans in distress.

“Our suicide rates are more than double the national rate here in Alaska. That is something Alaska continues to work on and address,” said Leah Van Kirk, the state suicide prevention coordinator with the Division of Behavioral Health. “We continue to struggle with high rates of suicide. We continue to have work to do. That’s why I’m excited about the implementation of 988.”

[‘Mental health is not just in a clinic. It’s everywhere’: Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition works with communitywide scope]

The 2020 rate of deaths by suicide in Alaska was 28.1 per 100,000, Van Kirk said, as opposed to a national rate of 13.5. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, only Wyoming leads Alaska across the country for the rate of deaths by suicide.

“Alaska is joining states and territories across the nation in transition to the easy-to-remember, three-digit number for the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline,” said Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Use Miriam Delphin-Rittmon in a news release. “I am committed to continued work with our national partners to achieve a smooth transition, and I greatly appreciate the partnership with our state and tribal leaders in Alaska.”

In Alaska, mental crisis calls will be directed to Careline Alaska, which already runs a mental health crisis call center. The three-digit number will speed the process. About $1.3 million in federal grants helped staff up the call center to handle the expected increase in demand, Van Kirk said.

“The DBH planned and developed projections for what our call volume would look like. On average we’ve been receiving approx 20,000 calls per year,” Van Kirk said. “We project that our number of calls will increase up to 30,000 to 35,000 per year.”

An alternate path

One of the major advantages to having a nationwide crisis hotline number is that people who are experiencing a crisis can call this hotline, instead of calling emergency services, which have been the subject of much criticism in recent years for their response to people in the throes of a mental health crisis. The Careline is able to loop in responders like police if necessary, Van Kirk said, but that’s rarely the outcome for calls to the center to date.

“This will help connect people with the right resources instead of calling 911 for people having a mental health crisis,” Van Kirk said. “They can do that if that’s what’s needed. But less than 1% of all calls to our call center result in the need for law enforcement to be dispatched.”

The call centers will help Alaskans to communicate with resources who can help them, which can take many forms, Van Kirk said. Much of the work in standing up the program in Alaska has been coordinating with local partners, including nonprofits and tribal agencies.

“Our call center will stay on the line with someone until someone gets to them or they get to help,” Van Kirks said. “What has been really amazing in this project is we’ve had stakeholders from across the state that are really invested in developing a system that’s going to meet the needs of anyone who lives in our state. I think that’s really important.”

Nuts and bolts

Dialing 988, which goes live on Saturday, will connect callers to a crisis call center in their home state, based on their phone number. People with a 907- phone number will connect with Careline Alaska, while callers with other area codes will connect with the call center in that state. However, dialing the Careline Alaska’s hotline at 877-266-HELP , no matter your phone number, will connect a caller with Careline Alaska, located physically in Fairbanks, Van Kirk said.

“The goal of 988 is to provide a simple and direct way for Alaskans to immediately access professional mental health support in a time of need,” said Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority Chief Executive Officer Steve Williams in a news release. “An effectively resourced 988 Lifeline can truly save lives; it connects a person in a mental health crisis or contemplating suicide to a trained counselor who can address their immediate needs and help connect them to ongoing care.”

Standing up the 988 number is a positive step for Alaska, said Tina DeAsis-Samaniego, a program coordinator with the Juneau Suicide Prevention Coalition. DeAsis-Samaniego said she hoped that the Careline would be able to provide informed support based on a caller’s situation, especially in places that may be physically isolated or where there’s other barriers to getting assistance.

“We think it’s fabulous,” DeAsis-Samaniego said. “Is it perfect? No.”

Careline is fully staffed to take calls in both English and Spanish, Van Kirk said, and access to other interpreters on contract with the call center for some other languages.

• Contact reporter Michael S. Lockett at 757-621-1197 or mlockett@juneauempire.com.

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