‘A big lift’ to get 988 launched: Much to do, and plenty of need, as Santa Cruz County prepares to roll out new behavioral health hotline

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Health officials and organizations across the country, including in Santa Cruz County, are preparing for a major revamp of how services respond to behavioral health crisis calls. A new 988 number, launching nationwide in July, will provide people with a trained responder who can help the caller resolve a mental health crisis.

Come July 16, anyone in the United States experiencing a mental health crisis can call a new number, 988, and talk to a trained responder who can listen to the caller, provide support and offer local resources.

This service has been available since 2005, when the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline first starting taking calls. However, the number has been much harder to remember: 800-273-8255.

That number will continue to be available even after 988 is implemented in July, but local officials say the shift to the 988 hotline will help save lives and is just one part of a long-term plan to change the emergency response infrastructure to better support those in mental health crises.

Since 1999, the national suicide rate has increased almost 30%, punctuating what we’ve already been hearing: Mental health care in this country was already playing catch-up before the pandemic exacerbated the existing problems.

While much of the planning and funding details are still being finalized, a California bill evisions mobile crisis response teams being available to respond in-person. A much-talked-about version is the CAHOOTS program in Eugene, Oregon.

There’s a local alternative in Santa Cruz County, the Mobile Emergency Response for Youth, known as MERTY. But while the state bill plans for a round-the-clock service for all ages, MERTY is available Monday through Friday from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and its staff responds only to calls for youth experiencing mental health crises.

How it works currently

When someone in Santa Cruz County calls the current 800 number — and when they start calling 988 in July — a responder from the Suicide Prevention Service of the Family Service Agency of the Central Coast answers.

Mental health resources

  • If you or a loved one are experiencing a mental health crisis, 24-hour, multilingual trained help is available by calling the 988 hotline. Find more information from the Family Service Agency of the Central Coast.
  • Trevor Lifeline (LGBTQ): 866-488-7386.
  • Call 911 for emergency services, call your doctor or go to an emergency room.
  • For more resources, visit the Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health Division website.

The Santa Cruz-based agency, a private nonprofit founded in 1957, provides counseling and supportive services to those in Monterey, Santa Cruz and San Benito counties. The call center at its Suicide Prevention Service is one of 180 crisis centers that answer the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number.

With the shift to 988, calls to centers around the country, like at the Central Coast center, are expected to increase by 30%. Nationally, crisis centers have recorded increases in calls for years, and with the added trauma and stress from the impacts of the pandemic, the need for mental health support has become more crucial.

While the need and will are there, a Thursday meeting of the Santa Cruz County Mental Health Advisory Board illustrated the challenges that lie ahead for implementation in less than three months.

“It’s a big lift,” said program director Andrea Tolaio, speaking at the meeting. “We are preparing to be able to answer those phones.”

For fiscal year 2020-21, the program received a total of 3,465 calls from the three counties. The call center has 60 volunteer responders and is in the process of hiring paid responders, with the goal of having 10 paid responders to answer the additional calls.

Where this new push began

The National Suicide Hotline Designation Act of 2020 was signed into law in October 2020 in order to create a national three-digit number for mental health crises that would be in place by July 2022. Assembly Bill 988, in the California legislature, intends to lay out more details on how the rollout of the 988 hotline will look, including an enhanced mobile mental crisis response system. The bill also says that the 988 hotline and the mobile crisis response system would not reach full operability until Jan. 1, 2027.

The bill says that the 988 system will provide a continuum of crisis services and will go beyond a call center. Once fully implemented, it will include crisis counseling, mobile teams of trained mental health responders and ongoing support.

James Russell, program manager for the Community Crisis Continuum for Santa Cruz County Behavioral Health, says he is working to hire a program coordinator within the next month to help the range of local agencies plan how this new system will operate.

Russell said part of the work they need to do is figure out who is already preparing for the 988 implementation, but added that county behavioral health service agencies, schools, law enforcement agencies, 911 and crisis call centers will all be involved.

“We have multiple groups in the community right now talking about this and trying to bring everybody to the same table and get that planning kind of under one roof,” he said, also speaking at the Mental Health Advisory Board meeting.

Russell said he hopes that organized committee meetings will start by June, and that’s when logistical conversations will begin, but it will take time.

“There’s some things that we can say we want to do, but if [something else is] legislated, we’re going to do that,” he said. “So being aware of those things so we can match our dreams with potential realities as well is great, and hopefully have something better than what they’re mandating.”

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