988 suicide prevention line ‘transformative’ as calls increase

It has been one month since the national suicide prevention lifeline officially launched 988 — a new three-digit dial code intended to make it easier for those in crisis to call for help.

The line consists of 160 crisis call centers across the country and puts callers in touch with nearby professionals who can talk callers through a crisis and dispatch help, if needed.

One of those local call centers is here in Butler County.

In partnership with the Community Health Alliance (CHA), Hamilton’s Sojourner Recovery is one of 19 networked call centers in the state and is primarily responsible for fielding crisis calls in Butler, Montgomery, Warren, Clinton and Preble counties.

In the month since 988 went into full effect, Sojourner has seen a 52% increase in call volume, according to Scott Gehring, the President and CEO of the Community Health Alliance. This increase suggests that the new code is doing what it was meant to do: offering easier access to the lifeline.

“I think launching 988 is really a transformative step for the state to be taking,” Gehring said.

Gehring describes 988 as a more organized and easier way for folks in crisis to receive help. There’s no need to memorize longer numbers or consider which number to call in a pinch — as “988″ becomes synonymous with the lifeline in the same way 911 has become synonymous with emergency services, anyone in crisis will know what to dial.

Gehring said the increased call volume of the past month has yet to overwhelm the Sojourner call center. But, in the event of an overload, the system is designed to redirect local calls to the Cincinnati network center, which would provide the same services.

“We were prepared for it,” Gehring said. “We did a lot of forecasting and modeling prior to the go-live. We increased our staffing and had them trained ahead of time and had them at the ready.”

Call volume spiked immediately after launch and is now leveling off, but Gehring said the volume is still significantly higher than it was before 988 launched, which means more people are getting connected with resources that have been available.

“I think the region that we support is all very well equipped for the dispatch needs. Here in Butler County, we have [a] mobile crisis [unit], which is extremely well equipped to meet the needs; the fire and police are all highly trained,” Gehring said. “I don’t personally have any issues or concerns about what resources are available to meet the needs of the community.”

The missing piece, Gehring said, was making it easier for those who need it to access the resources available.

“I think the help is there, I think it was just a matter of making it readily available,” Gehring said.

When folks call 988, they are redirected to local centers like Sojourner that are operating 24/7. Trained professionals then take the call, work to understand the situation, and can act as dispatchers, if needed.

“The crisis consultant that answers the phone will help talk to the person, they’ll stabilize [the situation], they’ll do an assessment over the phone while they’re talking to them, and they’ll determine whether or not they feel [that] somebody needs to go there,” Gehring said.

Gehring explained that in situations where harm has already been done, consultants would dispatch medical support; for situations that might lead to violence, consultants could dispatch police. For other scenarios, consultants could dispatch mobile crisis units.

For Sojourner, only 3% to 5% of calls result in any sort of dispatch. Gehring said that more often than not, callers just need someone to talk to — “...that’s the other 95% of calls.”

“When somebody needs help, there needs to be somebody there ready to listen,” Gehring said, “and we are standing by.”

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