State Sees Spike In Calls To Crisis Centers

New York is spending $52 million to expand access to crisis call centers amid skyrocketing demand for suicide-prevention and mental-health emergency phone counseling during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The investment of state and federal tax dollars is part of the transition on July 16 of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline to the phone number 988 from the current 1-800-273-8255. Next year, the state plans to begin spending $60 million annually to support the call centers across New York.

“Too often, people experiencing a mental health crisis or considering suicide feel as though they have no one to turn to,” Gov. Kathy Hochul said in a statement about the effort.

“But the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides hope and help,” she added.

The forthcoming change to an easy-to-remember 988 number, Hochul said, will be “a critical tool in helping more people access services and support as we continue to tackle behavioral health crises.”

Spikes in the number of New Yorkers calling crisis centers began in the years before the pandemic, as concerns mounted about drug and alcohol addiction, social isolation and inequality, and mental-health service gaps.

Then, COVID-19 struck in 2020, prompting lockdowns and wreaking economic havoc, which deepened those same societal ills that historically drove people to call the suicide prevention lifeline, state data show.

A state Office of Mental Health report in February detailed the rising calls in New York to the suicide prevention lifeline, as well as projections for even higher demand as pandemic-related mental health trauma unfolds in coming years.

Among the findings:

¯ The number of calls from New Yorkers to the suicide lifeline leaped 73% from 2016 to 2019, with nearly 137,500 calls in 2019 alone.

¯ In 2020, New York received 142,827 calls, showing a 13% increase in just one year.

¯ And during the first year of 988 operations, calls are estimated to spike to 442,700 in New York, including local crisis lines, 911 diversion and new callers.

¯ Currently, about 70% of calls are answered in-state, which is up from 45% in 2018. The 988 transition seeks to increase that percentage further.

On July 16, New Yorkers who are contemplating suicide, or experiencing another mental health or addiction crisis, will be able to call, text, or chat the 988 number.

Family members who worry that a loved one is experiencing one of those crises may also contact the number.

The caller will be connected with a trained counselor who can offer help, such as connecting the person with a mobile crisis response team that may include a first responder or a clinical counselor.

Those experiencing a life-threatening emergency should continue to call 911, health officials said, but the 988 hotline is also intended to alleviate 911 call volumes. Some 911 calls are also diverted to the hotline.

New Yorkers can currently use the national 1-800-273-8255 suicide prevention lifeline number, which will remain active for a period during the transition to the 988 hotline. The lifeline system currently offers phone and web chat, as well as limited text support.

Twelve centers spread across New York cover the suicide prevention lifeline calls in-state, with another site pending, the state report shows.

But out of 62 counties, a group of 11 counties lack complete in-state lifeline coverage. Those counties are Franklin, Clinton, Hamilton, Saratoga, Fulton, Montgomery, Schenectady, Rensselaer, Sullivan, Ulster, and Rockland.

Many of these 11 counties do have some in-state lifeline coverage from existing centers in neighboring communities, as well as local emergency line programs.

As part of the 988-hotline changeover, state officials plan to expand capacity at existing lifeline centers to better cover the 11 counties. Two additional centers are also expected to be added in the North Country and Capital Region as part of the effort.

Currently, five out of the 12 lifeline call centers in New York operate around the clock, the report shows, but new state and federal funding this year is expected to add new staffing at centers to make all 12 sites 24/7 operations.

The state budget included $35 million to expand call center capacity statewide, according to the governor’s office, which seeks to increase that support to $60 million per year beginning next year.

New York also received a $7.2 million federal grant as part of a national effort to launch the 988 hotline. An additional $10 million one-time federal mental health grant is being used this year to further boost capacity, staffing and training at the centers.


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