A man uses a cell phone in New Orleans, Aug. 11, 2019. People in crisis and those trying to help them will have a new three-digit number, 988, to reach the national suicide prevention network starting in July. Federal health officials on Monday are announcing more than $280 million to smooth the transition from the current 10-digit number. Credit: Jenny Kane

Maine plans to only soft-launch a new national mental health hotline next month until its provider can increase staffing ahead to handle higher call volumes.

The upgraded system will have its own number, 988, and operators who will be able to counsel callers and eventually dispatch crisis-trained responders. The idea is to connect people with appropriate services and lessen the reliance on emergency rooms and law enforcement personnel who may be less equipped to handle a mental health crisis.

Over half of the country’s public health officials said they do not have the funding or the staffing to handle the mid-July rollout, according to a recent Rand Corp. report. That has led to fears that states will not be able to give people the help they need once the line launches. While Maine expects to begin taking calls from the number by the deadline, its contracted provider for the hotline says it will not heavily promote the new line until more staff are hired and trained.

“I anticipate it’s not going to be a difficult launch,” said Tracy Mallwitz, the clinical director of the Maine Crisis Line, which is run through a contract with the Opportunity Alliance. “It’s going to fall into place as we start rolling with it.”

Mallwitz’s organization takes anywhere from 300 to 500 calls daily from the state hotline as well as the National Suicide Prevention Hotline, which it is also contracted to take calls from. When the new number launches, it is estimated to see another 200 calls daily.

The alliance is working to hire four or more employees to handle the expected increase, but it can take up to two months to train them. If the full increase happened at current staffing levels, Mallwitz said it would be impossible to meet standards for answering calls in a timely manner.

Maine set aside $450,000 in state and federal funds to facilitate the rollout, a Department of Health and Human Services official wrote in a letter to the Portland Press Herald in May. The state has also allocated $13 million for this fiscal year for crisis system services, including $2.4 million for state and federal crisis lines, Jackie Farwell, a department spokesperson, said.

The state’s current hotline will continue to operate for the time being, Farwell said. In addition to taking calls 24/7, the line also provides text and chat services that include options for non-English speakers and people who are deaf or hard of hearing.