New mental health crisis line on track

A new statewide suicide and mental health crisis hotline is scheduled to launch next week, and Maine officials say the state is on track to implement the system here.

Federal officials have set a July 16 deadline for each state to implement the new 988 hotline to connect callers to local answers. Several other states have indicated they may not meet that deadline. But Maine officials said they expect their system to be ready in time, mainly because they’re joining an already existing phone line.

The new system is supposed to work like the 911 emergency call line, but is specifically intended for those experiencing a mental health crisis. No matter where a person is in the country, the same three-digit number will connect a caller to a specialist who can provide support and also put the caller in touch with local resources to help.

Callers will be evaluated by a specialist and, if the situation requires immediate attention, the caller will be directed to one of the state’s regional mobile crisis teams or 911, if emergency services are required, said Jackie Farwell, spokeswoman for the Maine Department of Emergency Services. Health and Human Services.

The effort to create the 988 system was launched after a 30 percent increase in the country’s suicide rate between 2000 and 2019, although the rate has fallen slightly since then. Maine’s suicide rate is consistently higher than the national average. In 2020, there were 16.4 suicides in Maine per 100,000 residents, while the national rate was 13.5, according to the most recent federal data.

The Federal Communications Commission two years ago ordered all states to establish 988 lines by this month. But many states have been slow to respond. As of early June, the FCC said, only 20 states had passed bills to establish 988 calling systems, and only a handful had established ways to pay for the service.

In Maine, the 988 system will return with the Maine Crisis Line, a service of The Opportunity Alliance that provides support for those facing a behavioral crisis. Maine Crisis Line, which has been in operation for four years, will continue to answer calls to its line (1-888-568-1112) and also handle calls to 988. The crisis line currently handles about 300 calls per day, officials said.

DHHS is spending $450,000 to implement 988 and will spend $13 million on crisis support services in the current two-year budget cycle. That includes $2.4 million for hotlines, including the Maine crisis line.

Behavioral health organizations said they are eager to see the new 988 system come online.

“It’s going to be a great tool, although it will probably take some time to be implemented at full capacity,” said Jennifer Christian, project manager for the Alliance for Addiction and Mental Health Services, Maine.

Christian said a key asset will be having a number to call regardless of location, just as people know to call 911 if they’re away from home and have an emergency.

“I hope this is a way to help people immediately, with more specific resources,” she said.

Farwell said Maine has been working on its 988 implementation plan since April 2021 and is continuing to work with other organizations that will be part of the new system, including emergency medical teams, law enforcement, mobile teams of the crisis and others.

“The passage of 988 will ultimately provide a new, easily accessible ‘front door’ to Maine’s statewide crisis services,” she said, but “it will take time to establish new processes, build staff capacity and to develop the crisis system components needed to fully implement Crisis System 988. In the long term, the vision is to continue to strengthen a robust crisis response system throughout Maine and across the country. “

Farwell said the 988 system is part of $230 million in state and federal funding that DHHS is spending during the current two-year budget cycle to build the care provider workforce and improve access to behavioral health services in Maine.

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