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Suicide Hotline ‘Won’t Work Well’ Without State Help, HHS Says

July 1, 2022, 6:41 PM

The Biden administration’s national suicide hotline rollout will need state governments to play a strong hand to be a success, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra said Friday.

July 16 is the date the US National Suicide Prevention Hotline will begin its shift to its new 988 number. The idea is for the hotline to work like a 911 for suicide prevention and be accessible with web chat, text messages, and phone calls. The effort has received over $430 million from the Biden administration along with $150 million from Congress by way of the Safer Communities Act.

But whether the move is a success will largely rest with how states manage their help centers. A report from the Rand Corporation suggests that many state and local agencies aren’t ready for the launch.

Over half of state, county, and regional behavioral-health program directors surveyed said they weren’t involved in 988-related plans, while around 15% didn’t have a mental health hotline or call center in their jurisdiction.

“988 will work if the states are committed to it. It won’t work well if they’re not,” Becerra told reporters Friday.

Colorado, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and Utah are among the states Becerra said are equipped to effectively provide services starting July 16, with Rhode Island already boasting a 99% answering rate for related calls.

The HHS director, however, wouldn’t comment on which states weren’t prepared to effectively offer services, although he noted a general challenge to “professionalize the workforce” and “being able to pay them well.”

HHS’ Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has met with state and tribal leadership to develop guidance for 988 services and is trying to help fill staffing needs for call centers.

Becerra also noted “those who are receiving calls will have been trained” to respond to callers suffering from abortion restrictions following the Supreme Court’s June decision to overturn Roe v. Wade, a move that will severely curtail abortion access in over half of the country.

“I have every reason to believe the call centers are going to be ready,” he said.

Becerra added that he also expects law enforcement to be “really supportive” of 988, so the “correct professionals” can show up on the scene.

To contact the reporter on this story: Ian Lopez in Washington at ilopez@bloomberglaw.com

To contact the editors responsible for this story: Karl Hardy at khardy@bloomberglaw.com; Cheryl Saenz at csaenz@bloombergindustry.com