For people facing a mental health emergency, getting immediate help is much easier now that the National Suicide Prevention Network activated three-digit access to their helpline. And local law enforcement and mental health workers believe the new “988” line, which came online July 16, will benefit those reaching out for help.
In the past, people considering suicide or needing guidance with pressing mental health issues had to find or memorize a long “1-800 number,” said June DiPolito, executive director of Pineland Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities in Statesboro. By shortening the access line to easily-remembered three-digits, “people in need of help can quickly reach trained counselors,” she said.
The 988 line is designed to help people experiencing a mental health crisis. According to the state Department of Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities, the line will “enhance access and build services to help reduce suicide and overdose in Georgia.”
People calling, texting or chatting 988 are connected to trained counselors with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network, who will listen to the caller and refer them to proper venues to seek help.
Often, just by listening and talking to the callers, the counselors, may help prevent suicide, according to DiPolito. The 988 counselors can also refer callers to Pineland or other clinics in their area, she said.
Headquartered in Bulloch County, Pineland also serves Appling, Candler, Evans, Jeff Davis, Tattnall, Toombs and Wayne counties in 33 offices.
Working with 911 service
The 988 operators can also notify authorities, such as local police or 911, in cases where emergency response is needed, said Bulloch County 911 Director Kelly Barnard.
If someone calls 911 with a mental health issue and the caller may be suicidal, “We give them the 988 number and will transfer them just in case,” she said.
But also, if callers are suicidal or threaten to harm themselves, Barnard said 911 operators “will dispatch local EMS and law enforcement” to respond for immediate safety.
Statesboro Police Chief Mike Broadhead said shortening the number to reach help in mental health crises is a good move.
“I think it is a fantastic idea to have an easily remembered access number,” he said. “In the same way that 911 has become part of the nation's ‘help’ service, I think 988 will ultimately have the same recognition.
“We know that people considering suicide need to be ‘interrupted’ and given time to make a better decision. Having an easily accessible number facilitates someone who is thinking of suicide having someone to easily call and talk to.”
Neither the Statesboro Police Department nor Bulloch County Sheriff’s Office have had any interaction with the new 988 line – yet.
“Most of our calls for service regarding mental health issues come from 911,” said Bulloch County Sheriff’s Chief Deputy Bill Black. “At that point we wouldn't simply refer someone to 988 because those calls would usually be emergency in nature and we would normally respond, and either talk the person into allowing us to transport them to the (emergency room), or go with a family member to the hospital.”
But in urgent cases, a 988 operator would contact the SPD, BCSO or 911, which then would dispatch local law enforcement, he said.
While they try to offer help and resources, 911 operators “are not trained mental health professionals,” like the 988 counselors, Barnard said.
Bulloch 911 does get a large number of calls from people with mental issues, but not all are emergencies. Often a person with an altered mental status will call to report things they perceive to be real that are not, she said.
In many cases, a 911 operator will try to communicate with the caller’s family or caregiver. But those cases do not require the 988 number, which is geared towards people who are in danger of self-harm, she said.
988 line training
Bulloch County 911 operators have not yet had any training regarding the 988 line, but it is possible the topic will be addressed in an upcoming bi-annual training session in September, according to Barnard.
However, police officers and deputies are trained in ways to deal with persons suffering from mental illness.
“Many of our deputies have attended Crisis Intervention Training,” Black said. “It is now standard protocol for all of our deputies graduating the Police Academy to go straight to CIT the next week.”
The easily-remembered 988 line “is making a big difference nationwide,” DiPolito said. “They have a mobile crisis staff that will respond to callers in need, as well as reach out to law enforcement and mental health centers in the callers’ area.
While 988 access just began, the long-time numbers to reach help still work. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is still accessible at (800) 273-8255. The Georgia Crisis and Access Line remains active 24/7 at (800) 715-4225.
Holli Deal Saxon may be reached at (912) 243-7815.