WEST CHESTER — Chester County was recently awarded $300,000 in funding to support the new 988 hotline to assist people with any behavioral health crisis 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
The 988 line is part of a nationwide effort to streamline access and services for those who are suicidal, in emotional distress, or facing a mental health or substance abuse crisis. It was created by an act of Congress last year, which established 988 as the nationwide number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and Veterans Crisis Line. The line is expected to launch by July.
The $300,000 in funding, administered by the Pennsylvania Department of Human Services, will support the Chester County Department of Mental Health/Intellectual & Developmental Disabilities (MH/IDD) in implementing 988 for the Comprehensive Crisis Response System Planning and Development.
It comes as part of $28 million in additional, one-time federal funding awarded to 30 counties across the Commonwealth through the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2021 in combination with funds from Pennsylvania’s annual Community Mental Health Services Block Grant award.
State Senator Carolyn Comitta, D-19th of West Chester, said the funding comes at a critical time as mental health services are in high demand and crisis calls have risen drastically due to the stress, anxiety, disruptions, and uncertainty associated with the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It’s vital that residents know that it’s OK to ask for help and that help is readily available,” said Comitta, who serves on the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. “The new 988 line will more effectively and efficiently connect anyone in crisis with specially trained behavioral health professionals and services, while relieving our 911 line and existing agencies that don’t specialize in behavioral health from influx of crisis calls.”
U.S. Rep. Chrissy Houlahan, D-6th of Easttown, also noted that the 988 line would improve access to mental and behavioral health services for veterans.
“Our community is tragically familiar with the importance of mental health services, especially among our student population,” said Houlahan. “Understanding the struggle so many veterans face as well, I strongly advocated for and helped pass the Campaign to Prevent Suicide Act and the REACH for Veterans Act. These bipartisan bills bolstered federal efforts and funding for 9-8-8, the new number for the National Mental Health Crisis Suicide Prevention Hotline. This effort will truly save lives, and I’m thankful for our community leaders who are supporting this vital service here in southeastern Pennsylvania.”
While the Federal Communications Commission adopted regulations on how 988 should operate, states are now largely responsible for implementing the number, including building the infrastructure, training staff, and integrating it with 911 and other emergency services.
In Chester County, the new, easy-to-remember 988 crisis number will replace the ten-digit numbers to call Chester County’s Valley Creek Crisis Center and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
The county’s 988 planning process is being coordinated by its Department of MH/IDD with consulting support from Capacity for Change. The planning team, which represents diverse stakeholder needs and concerns, aims to reimagine a more comprehensive, effective, and accessible crisis response system for all residents.
“The issues associated with mental health cross many boundaries,” said Michael J. Duncan, President and CEO of Chester County Hospital and a member of the planning team. “The 988 effort is exciting to me because it brings together everyone from public to private sector and from law enforcement to direct healthcare providers. We can, and must, work more collaboratively.”
In addition, 988 will also decrease the number of calls routed to 911. Chester County’s 911 Call Center receives an average of 400 emotional support calls each month.
Chief Howard Holland, the President of the Chester County Chiefs of Police Association and member of the county’s 988 planning team, noted that the current expectation for law enforcement to manage mental health incidents needs to change.
“This project should greatly reduce the amount of law enforcement resources used for mental health crises,” he said.
Across the country, many communities envision the implementation of 988 as an opportunity to create a system that will offer a continuum of care – connecting those in need with highly trained behavioral health specialists via 24/7 call (text and chat) centers, crisis mobile response teams and a center for crisis stabilization.
“I’m excited to serve on Chester County’s 988 Mental Health Planning Committee to develop a coordinated comprehensive approach to address the rise of mental health needs. A county-wide 988 infrastructure is crucial to the mental health ecosystem,” said Vanessa Briggs, President and CEO of The Alliance for Health Equity in Coatesville.
The 988 line is slated to launch by July 18. The existing National Suicide Prevention Line, 1-800-273-TALK and the Veterans Crisis Line, 1-800-273-8255 (Press #1), will both remain operational during and after the 988 transition.
According to the CDC, in 2019 suicide was the tenth leading cause of death overall in the United States, claiming the lives of over 47,500 people. It was the was the second leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 10 and 34, and the fourth leading cause of death among individuals between the ages of 35 and 44.
Veterans also appear to be at particular risk of suicide. About 20 veterans a day commit suicide nationwide, according to the Department of Veterans Affairs. Veterans are 1.5 times more likely to die by suicide than Americans who never served in the military, and the risk factor for female veterans is even higher at 2.2 times, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Military and Veterans Affairs.
If you or someone you know is struggling with mental health or suicidal ideation or have in the past, please know that help is always available:
• Valley Creek Crisis Center (Chester County): 610-280-3270
• Chester County Warm Line: 1-866-846-2722
• Chester County Teen Talk Line: 855-852-8336 (text: 484-362-9515)
• Persevere PA Support and Referral Helpline: 1-855-284-2494
• Mental Health Crisis Text Line: Text PA to 74174
• The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
• The Spanish-language National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-888-628-9454
• Veterans Crisis Line: 1-800-273-8255 (Press #1) or Text: 838255
• TrevorLifeline for LGBTQ individuals: 866-488-7386
• Trans Helpline: 877-565-8860