Beginning next month, all Americans experiencing mental health issues — and even crises — will have a dedicated place to turn to for help.

On July 16, the nation will be launching the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline. Anyone experiencing emotional distress or crisis can pick up a phone in the United States and dial 988 for immediate support and intervention.

The existing National Suicide Prevention Hotline, 800-273-8255, is still in use and will continue to be in use after July 16.

In South Dakota, the 988 lifeline was organized collaboratively between Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), Vibrant Emotional Health and the Department of Social Services.

According to a 988 appropriations report to Congress by SAMHSA, the creation of 988 is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform America’s behavioral-health crisis-care system. The report goes on to predict that 988 will transform the system the same way 911 did for emergency services.

Nationally, the U.S. Federal Communication Commission (FCC) laid the groundwork for the new dialing protocol in 2021.

“The FCC has been working on an effort to create an easy-to-remember number that folks can call that are having mental-health issues or perhaps contemplating suicide. They settled on 988,” Chris Nelson, chairman of the South Dakota Public Utilities Commission (PUC), told the Press & Dakotan in an interview last year. “In order to implement that easy-to-use number, any place where 988 (was) already being used as a telephone prefix (had) to move to 10-digit dialing.”

In all, 35 states had to make the change to 10-digit dialing by the end of 2021, including South Dakota, Iowa and Minnesota.

The difference between the two lifelines is that 988 offers a broader range of services than the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, according to Janet Kittams, chief executive officer of Helpline Center in Sioux Falls, which currently answers 211 and National Suicide Prevention Hotline.

The Helpline Center is now wrapping up its preparations to begin answering 988 calls, too.

“988 will be the phone number to call for any type of mental-health or substance-use crisis or information,” she told the Press & Dakotan. “If you yourself are struggling with depression or anxiety, or if you have a family member who’s struggling with substance-use issues or alcohol use, that would be the appropriate number to call.”

It is a crisis line for any type of emotional distress, which includes suicide, but is much broader than that, she said.

“When the call is answered, we would take that caller, talk them through whatever’s happening in their life and then get them to a point where they’re stabilized,” Kittams said. “Eighty percent of the time, we are able to stabilize that caller and not have to call upon any outside interventions for that person.”

The 211 helpline for essential community services is separately staffed and funded and will remain in place, she emphasized.

The Helpline Center will have specifically trained staff answering 988 calls, Kittams explained.

Team members answering the 988 lifeline have a high level of behavioral health expertise with their master’s degree in social work, counseling or a related field, she added.

988 lifeline responders will refer stabilized callers to local mental-health or substance-use service providers on a live conference call, when possible. Lifeline staff will also follow up, checking in with callers to ensure their crisis remains stabilized, Kittams said.

Yankton area residents would likely be referred to Lewis & Clark Behavioral Health Services.

Once 988 launches, call responders expect to be busy.

“We are anticipating that our call volume, from what we currently receive on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, will probably double or even triple,” she said. “It just depends on how quickly people adapt to the phone number, and sometimes, you just can’t predict that.”

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