Vermont will join the rest of the nation in launching a new three-digit number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July, using base funding from the state budget.
All states will be federally required to offer the three-digit number, 988, by July 16, as a mental health provision. On Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott signed H.740, legislation that allocates continued government funding to support Vermont’s Lifeline staffing and infrastructure.
Terri Lavely, board member and field advocate for the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is contributing to the oversight of the 988 rollout. She testified on behalf of this bill as well as for a previous bill it coincided with, S.69, for the House and Senate appropriations committees.
“This is a huge step forward, and it’s been such a long time coming,” Lavely said. “(We need to) get people to the services that they need and the responses that they need when they need it. It doesn’t always come at 9 in the morning when your therapist is in the office. Sometimes it’s at 2 in the morning when you’re just struggling with your own thoughts.”
In preparation for the launch of the three-digit number, Vermont made the switch for all dialed calls to require typing in a full 10-digit number — even for local 802 calls — in October 2021.
That was because Vermont is one of several states that had existing phone numbers beginning with 988, said Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner of the Vermont Department of Mental Health.
“Not every state had that, but we were one that did,” Krompf said. “It made it so that everyone got a little alert on their phone that said, like ‘starting on Oct. 1,’ and that actually drummed up a lot of interest.”
Another element of Vermont’s 988 launch plan that not every state will necessarily benefit from is 24/7 service.
The Federal Communications Commission, which established 988 as an easy-to-remember nationwide dialing code in 2020, is requiring all phone service providers to direct all 988 calls to the Lifeline starting on the number’s comprehensive nationwide launch date, July 16.
All covered providers are required by the Federal Communications Commission to implement 10-digit dialing in areas that use 988 as the first three numbers in seven-digit phone numbers.
“We’ve been preparing for this moment, specifically since 2019,” Krompf said.
Around that time, Krompf began working for the Department of Mental Health, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reached out to the department because Vermont did not yet have any call centers managing the hotline at that time.
The Department of Mental Health initially received a capacity-building grant for these services in 2019 to onboard staff and get the Lifeline project off the ground, then received a planning grant, at which point it needed to find other funding avenues to sustain staffing and infrastructure .
The first grant came from a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.
Since 2019, Vermont has established two certified call centers that operate through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — though currently, the Lifeline is accessible only by calling 800-273-8255 or by way of a 10-digit number for the individual Vermont-based units .
Vibrant, the Lifeline provider, is predicting a 30% increase in use of the line with 988 as the call number, Lavely said.
The two affiliated Vermont-based organizations that receive calls on the national hotline are Northwestern Counseling and Support Services and Northeast Kingdom Human Services. Ten community mental health centers have their own crisis lines.
Vermont’s eight other mental health centers, which are not certified through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, still offer services 24/7 but operate on a pager-system at night, whereas the affiliated centers are fully staffed with service providers 24/7.
Still, Krompf does not anticipate a competitive element in the continued relationship between the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and the existing local organizations, as the Lifeline does not provide continued counseling or other services that these mental health centers do offer.
“It should be a referral pipeline,” she said. “The service that they actually provide is not taking away. The hope is it will actually provide more traffic because more people who don’t know about these services will find out about them.”
Vermont Care Partners, the body overseeing Vermont’s 10 designated mental health agencies, plans to dedicate an upcoming Monday meeting entirely to 988 rollout planning, said Joe Halko, director of community relations at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services.
“We’re coming out of a two-year period where the system has, in a sense, been overwhelmed by the increased number of individuals seeking services, and certainly the intent is now to step that up,” he said. “It’s really rebranding and broadening the services that can be provided.”
Another benefit of the National Lifeline is Vermont’s partnership with New Hampshire as a backup for times of high call volume at the Vermont-based call centers, to ensure Vermonters who are calling in times of distress or in crisis will never be met by a busy signal .
Krompf said her department plans to heavily promote the hotline through multiple forms of outreach, such as newsletters and social media promotion. She hopes the number will become as commonly known as 911.
“Think about when you were a kid and everybody knows 911,” Krompf said. “We also want to make clear you don’t have to be suicidal to call in any mental health crisis.”
Krompf also stressed the importance of the distinction between the two emergency numbers, with 911 being for immediate medical attention or police response, and 988 meant as a mechanism to help prevent the need for serious medical service intervention.
“As wonderful as 911 is as a service, I’ve spoken to many people who really, truly would be too afraid to call,” she said. “They’re concerned about whether or not the response would escalate things in a way that would make things worse.”
Especially in a world impacted by Covid-19, these kinds of mental health response services are crucial, Krompf said. With the onset of the pandemic, suicide attempts and suicide death rates went up — though not immediately after the pandemic arrived in March 2020.
The highest rates Vermont has reported in over a decade were recorded in 2021, and projections for 2022 do not appear to be much better, Krompf said.
Halko said he believes the toll the pandemic has taken on people’s mental health will likely have long-term effects in the coming years.
Kids as young as 10 years old have used Vermont’s mental health crisis call centers, Lavely said. She hopes today’s children will be the generation to really break down the stigma that still surrounds mental health.
“If you have a toothache, you don’t wait to go to the dentist. If you have a broken bone, you don’t wait to go to the emergency room,” Lavely said. “Why would you wait to attend to your mental health?”
Krompf said these services are known to save lives, and multiple people have told her that, had it not been for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, they would have attempted suicide.
“The biggest shift from my perspective, about it being a 988 number just like a 911, is it’s putting mental health on the same playing field as physical health,” she said. “This deserves every much of having the availability of 24/7 response as any other challenge or affliction.”
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