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988 Hotline Now Connects Callers with Mental Health Professionals in Cincinnati, Ohio and Kentucky | Cincinnati News | Cincinnati

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People in distress can call, text or chat online with mental health professionals through the 988 program.

Ohio, Kentucky and the rest of the United States now have a new option for mental health resources.

The country recently rolled out its long-developing 988 program, which directs callers to suicide prevention counselors, addiction specialists and other mental health resources. The National Suicide Prevention Hotline has been in operation since 2005 but recently shortened its phone number from a 10-digit 800 number to the present three-digit number. People in distress now can call or text 9-8-8.

National leaders expect 988 to become a hub for mental health resources the way 911 is for emergency resources, saying it’s easier to remember than the old 10-digit phone number and is faster to receive care. 988 is federally mandated by the Federal Communications Commission, but each state is responsible for setting up its own system.

Like many states, Ohio and Kentucky transitioned to the 988 system on July 16 (some states still are setting up their systems). When a person calls 988, they will be routed to mental health professionals at a local or state call center. National call centers will step in if local centers are not available. There are more than 200 call centers throughout the United States, so callers will never encounter a busy signal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says.

HHS adds that in 2020, one person died by suicide every 11 minutes.

Here’s where 988 calls go in Hamilton County, Ohio

Talbert House, a local nonprofit network that provides suicide prevention counseling, housing, addiction and other services, serves as the 988 call center for Hamilton County. It also accepts backup calls from other parts of the state and country when other centers’ lines are busy. During 988’s first two days, Talbert House received 93 local calls and 108 national calls, according to data Talbert House provided to CityBeat.

“It’s is so important for people to have quick access when they are in crisis,” Teri Nau, vice president of community and donor relations for Talbert House, tells CityBeat.

Cincinnati’s Emergency Communications Center also works with Talbert House to forward 911 calls to the 988 counselors when the situation calls for it. Counselors may be conferenced into police calls to help de-escalate heightened situations.

Currently, the Cincinnati 988 program is available 40 hours per week and will later expand to 60 hours per week. 

All Ohioans can call 988

The 988 program now is available throughout Ohio. A release from the Ohio Mental Health & Addiction Services department says that callers will be routed to local or regional counselors based on their area code.

The department adds that it has funding for one year of 988 operation, but Axios reports that Ohio is not one of the states that has enacted long-term funding for the project. Currently, Ohio has allocated $20 million to 988 efforts at 19 state call centers.

988 also is in Northern Kentucky and throughout the Commonwealth

Kentuckians also have access to emergency mental health services by dialing 988.

“My administration has always prioritized mental health the same as physical health,” Beshear says in a news release. “And with the launch of 988, we have made it easier for Kentuckians to reach out and get the help they need and deserve.”

“Backup coverage is essential to quickly responding to individuals in crisis, and we are positioned to handle these calls, even as they increase,” Angela Roberts, 988 program administrator, said in a news release. 

If one of the 13 call centers in Kentucky is unable to take a call, the call is automatically routed to a national backup center in Florida or New York, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

According to a press release, officials in Kentucky anticipate the easier-to-remember number and text capabilities will lead calls to quadruple by June 2023.

The switch in Kentucky was made possible by a two-year, $1.16 million grant sourced from American Rescue Plan dollars, that release also states. In addition, Kentucky’s upcoming budget includes $19.6 million over a two-year period to boost infrastructure for 988 and to fund mobile crisis services.

According to Axios, Kentucky is one of the states that has enacted long-term funding for 988.

The country moves from 1-800-273-TALK to 988

The 988 lifeline is part of a nationwide departure from the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which will remain available even after the transition to 988; callers to the original number will be routed to local or regional call centers as if they’d called 988 in the first place. 988 is available 24/7 for counselors to respond to calls, chats or text messages directly. The service also is available to those who are concerned about a loved one who may need crisis support. 

In 2020, former U.S. President Donald Trump signed bipartisan legislation allowing a three-digit number for mental health crises. The Federal Communications Commission later assigned 988 as the phone number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. Current U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration since has provided $432 million in federal funding towards building call centers and adding other resources to the 988 effort, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services says.

988 is available in all U.S. states and five major territories. The National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s original number of 1-800-273-TALK remains in effect.

To accommodate the 988 effort, Greater Cincinnati phone carriers have begun requiring area codes when dialing numbers within the region.

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