Local efforts to fill gaps as new 988 crisis hotline launches Saturday
ALPENA — The Saturday rollout of a nationwide three-digit emergency hotline could save lives, but a surge in callers could overwhelm the limited staff available to answer those phone calls.
Alpena-area mental health advocates say local resources will continue to help struggling residents through difficult moments, hopefully filling in gaps left as the 988 Suicide and Crisis Hotline takes effect.
Like 911 before it, the three-digit number will be easier to remember during a crisis than an existing, 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, planners hope.
That ease of access could also mean a glut of callers further clogging an already overworked system.
In Northeast Michigan, where officials report some of the highest suicide rates in the state, people in crisis need to know they’re heard, said Mary Schalk, program coordinator for the Alpena-area chapter of Partners in Prevention.
Local classes offered by that organization prepare residents to handle a mental health crisis, and a 24/7 crisis hotline operated by the Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Authority provides immediate access to help.
Crisis lines and people trained to help can provide what people in crisis may most desperately need — a willing ear, Schalk said.
“It’s so important to just listen,” Schalk said. “They need to know somebody understands how awful things are for them, right in that moment.”
A SURGE OF CALLS
Calls and texts to 988 will route to the roughly 200 crisis call centers — including seven in Michigan — that respond to the current national suicide prevention hotline.
The hotline’s call center network has in recent years been underfunded, under-resourced, and unable to keep up with demand, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which oversees the hotline.
When 988 goes live on Saturday, hotline administrators expect a surge of calls that could more than double the hotline’s volume during the first year.
High-end estimates predict hotline counselors could field 41 million calls per year after five years — a 900% increase over current volume.
The federal government in April authorized more than $100 million — including $3.4 million to Michigan — to prepare for the expected boom in phone calls to the lifeline. Now, states have to use that money, and their own investments, to increase capacity at call centers and make sure residents get connected to resources quickly, SAMHSA said.
Michigan legislators have introduced a bill that could expand a current Michigan crisis line currently restricted to the Upper Peninsula and Oakland County to connect crisis callers to local services, including crisis response teams, in conjunction with 988.
That bill was referred to a committee in September.
Such state action could prove vital to people who rely on the hotline in their moments of deepest need.
“There’s nothing worse than calling a crisis line and getting put on hold,” Schalk said.
UNDERSTANDING THE STRUGGLE
Northeast Michigan residents need quick access to crisis care as much as — or even more than — people in other parts of the state.
With 49 suicides over 16 years, Alcona County reported the second-highest suicide rate in Michigan between 2005 and 2020, more than twice the state average rate over those years, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, as reported by Bridge Magazine.
Presque Isle and Montmorency Counties logged high suicide rates during the same time span. Alpena County, with 77 reported suicides over that time period, also fell above the state’s rate.
Rural residents may encounter real or perceived limited mental health care access, an obstacle that can contribute to high rates of suicide, Schalk said.
Many Alpena-area residents, raised to be self-reliant, also hesitate to ask for help — and, when they do, they don’t know where to turn, Schalk said.
Partners in Prevention, in partnership with Community Mental Health, provides training for people who want to know how to help someone in a mental health crisis.
An online Mental Health First Aid course teaches risk factors and warning signs for mental health concerns and walks participants through an action plan to implement at a time of crisis.
Other courses teach about the impact of trauma, which can lead to long-term mental health struggles, including suicidal thoughts.
Understanding the root of such struggles can help people make healthy changes to protect themselves, Schalk said.
‘SOMETHING BETTER TO COME’
Unlike a call to 911, use of the 988 hotline will not automatically trigger a response from police or medical responders.
A local crisis hotline provided by Community Mental Health in Alpena offers the same reassurance that callers can just talk without fear of sirens arriving in their driveway, said Mary Crittenden, Chief Operations Officer at Community Mental Health.
About 150 to 200 people per month approach the agency in crisis, many of them calling the agency’s hotline after business hours.
Call service workers want people to call at 2 a.m., if that’s when they need help, and callers don’t have to be at the point of suicide to call, Crittenden said.
“We’ll never say, this is not a crisis,” she said. “If it’s a crisis to you, it’s a crisis.”
Though the new 988 number will provide memorable ease of access and, hopefully, save lives, Crittenden helps the CMH hotline will alleviate some of the stress on the national system as it adjusts to a new call volume.
Too, the people who answer CMH’s hotline live locally and have information about local resources at their fingertips, Crittenden said.
Most of all, 988 and other resources offer despairing people hope, Schalk said.
“They need someone to help them to see that this can get better,” she said. “Maybe not right now, and maybe not tomorrow. But there’s a reason to hang on through the difficult part, with hope that there’s something better to come.”
Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693 or email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @jriddleX.
Check out the Suicide Safety Plan, provided by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, below. Story continues below the document.
What happens when you call 988
∫ Callers to 988 will hear a recorded message, which will connect the caller to a trained counselor at one of about 200 crisis centers across the country.
∫ Counselors listen to callers, providing support and asking guiding questions as needed to understand each caller’s concerns.
∫ Some counselors will refer a caller to local or national resources that can help.
∫ Calls to 988 will not automatically trigger a response from police or medical responders.
∫ The hotline is not restricted to calls from people contemplating suicide. About a third of callers want to talk about mental health concerns other than suicide.
∫ The hotline is free to anyone and available 24/7 beginning on Saturday.
Source: Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration
In a crisis
If you need suicide or mental health-related crisis support, or are worried about someone else, contact one of the numbers below to connect with a trained crisis counselor.
National Suicide Prevention Hotline
∫ Through Friday, call or text 800-273-8255
∫ Starting Saturday, call or text 988 or chat at 988lifeline.org
Northeast Michigan Community Mental Health Authority
∫ Call 989-356-2161 or 800-968-1964 or TDD 711
To anonymously share written stories, poems, song lyrics, or videos about mental health struggles — or to read stories from others with similar struggles — visit ok2talk.org.
For information about Partner in Prevention programs, call 989-356-2880 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about the 988 hotline, and for facts about suicide, visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org.