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How Ohio is getting ready for '988' new mental health crisis hotline

Advocates say the 3-digit dialing code will make it easier for individuals in crisis to access the help they need.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — Every day, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline receives about 6,000 calls, but in a few weeks, the process of getting help during a mental health crisis will change. A new hotline called '988' will work in addition to the national hotline. 

"I can just remember sitting on the floor of a dormitory, being scared out of my mind," said Hannah Thompson, a coordinator for suicide prevention services. 

Thompson said she was a freshman at Ohio State when her roommate had a mental health crisis. 

"She was feeling suicidal. She was actively trying to think of ways to harm herself, and we didn't know what to do," she said. 

She called Suicide Prevention Services in Columbus, and the ten-digit phone number became a lifeline. 

"They calmed us down. They asked us questions about the state of mind that she was currently in," Thompson said. "That help is what has kept her alive to this day."

Many phone numbers for mental health help can be tough to remember. That's where advocates say the new 988 hotline comes in. 

"We really believe it's going to make it easier for families supporting a person with mental illness or addiction to connect to care more quickly with an easier-to-remember number," said Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services. 

On July 16, the federal government is requiring states to launch 988. The 3-digit dialing code will connect callers with suicide prevention and mental health crisis counselors. The goal is to help existing hotlines take more calls, provide local assistance, and increase call center coverage to include text and chat. Advocates said it's also an alternative to 911. 

"It will cut down on police calls, jail time, and also our emergency rooms that are sometimes inundated with people in crisis," said Rep. Gail Pavliga. 

In Ohio from January through March 2022, the current national suicide prevention lifeline routed 14,677 calls. More than 50% of them were answered in-state.  When 988 launches, Ohio will have 19 call centers.

"The first 18 months, we've dedicated a little over $20 million to that readiness and to the operations, we've done an actuarial study, and it shows that in year five, that will cost about $34 million," Criss said. 

After that, funding will be left up to the next General Assembly. Thompson said 988 will save lives.

"We have gotten help to them when they have been at that pivotal point where it is life or death for them," she said.

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