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Missouri mental crisis calls go up during 988 hotline’s first month

Safe Connections opened one of the first texting hotlines in early March for people experiencing domestic abuse.
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The 988 crisis hotline — which people can call or text — links people in mental health crisis with local suicide prevention agencies based on their phone's area code.

During the first month of a national mental health crisis line, calls to Missouri mental health centers have gone up 30%, state officials said.

Health officials put the federally backed three-digit 988 call line in place July 16. It routes all calls to suicide prevention hotline crisis centers.

The system appears to be working. More than 4,000 people called the state’s mental health crisis centers in that month, compared with around 3,100 calls routed in June, according to the Missouri Department of Mental Health.

Proponents say the 988 line is easier to remember and allows more people to reach a mental health worker. It aims to make 988 a version of 911 for mental health emergencies.

“Making an easy three-digit number just as easy as 911 for everyone in some ways sends a message that it's OK to ask for help, you’re being encouraged to ask for help,” said Gena Terlizzi, executive director of National Alliance on Mental Illness Missouri.

“What 988 did was it made it a lot easier for people to get to the right place the first time,” she said. “Before, people had to know of the lifeline number, which was an 800 number and was not as commonly known as 988.”

When people in crisis dials 988, they hear a greeting message while their call is plugged into the crisis center network. Calls are routed to local response centers based on their phone’s area code.

They can then talk to counselors who provide support and share how to get in touch with in-person help if needed. If a caller is in immediate danger or a threat to others, a counselor may dispatch law enforcement or social workers to respond.

People also can connect to the network by texting 988.

The state and federal governments have allocated money to help beef up staff and infrastructure to meet the expected increase in call volume. The state’s crisis centers are expected to answer more than 250,000 calls, texts and chats in the first year, state health officials said.

Health centers are still waiting on money to arrive from the government so they can hire more employees to answer the calls.

Mental health hubs are still ramping up their marketing to educate people about the new hotline, said Jamie Huffman, access crisis intervention coordinator at Mark Twain Behavioral Health in Kirksville.

Huffman expects the number of callers to grow even more as word spreads about 988.

“It is kind of a slower rollout of marketing with 988, so I think as the marketing gets out there, I think that will increase,” she said.

Huffman hopes the hotline will eventually use geolocation, instead of area codes, to route numbers to local agencies.

“I think it's wonderful,” she said. “And I think it's going to really open doors for people.”

Follow Sarah on Twitter: @petit_smudge

Sarah is the health reporter at St. Louis Public Radio.

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