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Southern Tier health officials wait to see how 988 mental health hotline unfolds

988 hotline web

The first three-digit mental health hotline in the country rolled out earlier this month. Nationwide, people in crisis can now call 988 to receive counseling and referrals to resources.

The number is connected with the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which has been taking calls from people in crisis since 2005. There are call centers across the country; New York has 13 regional call centers. The Southern Tier’s call center is in Ithaca.

The hotline could help prevent people in crisis from coming into contact with police or ending up hospitalized. But it’s hard to tell how many calls these centers will get now that 988 has rolled out, and whether they’ll be ready.

Harmony Ayers-Friedlander is the Deputy Commissioner of Mental Health Services for Tompkins County. Like many local health officials, she’s still waiting to see what demand and use of the hotline will look like.

“We know there are people who are just suffering in silence somewhere... because they don't have access to the care that they deserve and need,” Ayers-Friedlander said. “When we start to create this access, is it going to be this rush? Or is it going to be a slow trickle? And no one knows the answer.”

There are certainly challenges. Like almost every field of health care, mental health providers are dealing with staffing shortages. And call centers, like the one in Ithaca, will have to coordinate referrals, making sure if someone calls from Elmira, they get resources in Elmira.

Each town or county may have a very particular set of mental health resources. And some places have their own mental health hotlines, or mental health crisis de-escalation programs attached to emergency services.

Nancy Williams, Broome County’s commissioner of social services and community mental health said that could be a challenge. She said it’s also important to emphasize 988 is an addition, it isn’t replacing any of the resources or hotlines that already exist.

“You don't want people to not be calling the numbers they're used to, if this isn't ready to go, which has always been my concern,” Williams said. “Don't take something away that's been working until this other thing is really connected.”

Because of that, the federal government, New York state and many counties are doing a “soft launch” of 988. The number is ready and usable for anyone who needs it. But there hasn’t been a major public awareness campaign yet.

One of the main benefits of 988 is that it's easy to remember. The idea is that as capacity is built, 988 could someday be as ubiquitous as 911. But health officials say patience is key.

“Everyone takes 911 for granted," Ayers-Friedlander said, "But it actually took 10 years to get 911 up and functioning across the United States.”

If you are experiencing a mental health crisis, call or text 988 or visit 988lifeline.org.

Local hotlines and county mental health resources: