Xavier Becerra, Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services, speaks during a press conference on the kickoff of 988, a new national mental health hotline, Friday, July 15, 2022, in Philadelphia. The press conference took place in front of the Contemplation, Clarity and Resilience mural by artist Eric Okdeh, which is a mural that represents, among many other things, the process of overcoming hardships. The United States’ first nationwide three-digit mental health crisis hotline (988) goes live on Saturday. Credit: Heather Khalifa / The Philadelphia Inquirer via AP

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To reach a suicide prevention hotline, call the new 988 three-digit hotline or visit suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Suicide prevention services can also be reached at 888-568-1112 or 800-273-TALK (8255).

Mental health care is just that, health care. There is no shame in needing help.

The isolation and upheaval during the COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated mental health challenges in Maine and across the country.

Given this concerning reality, the recent launch of 988, a new national three-digit suicide prevention hotline, comes at a particularly important time. This type of hotline has already existed at the state and federal level for years, but until now, callers had to dial 10-digit numbers to be connected to resources. There is good reason to expect that this simpler three-digit hotline will improve access and, hopefully, raise awareness and ease some of the dangerous stigma around mental health challenges.

People who need help during a mental health crisis should not hesitate to call 988.

“The launch of 988 in Maine opens doors to hope and support for the 1 in 4 Mainers who are struggling with a mental health challenge, marking an important step in transforming access to appropriate services within their communities,” Hannah Longley, senior clinical director of community programs at NAMI Maine, said in a Monday press release from the Maine Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). “As with physical health emergencies, it is our hope that 988 will save lives by providing critical emergency services for mental health and suicidal crises. We look forward to continuing conversations to further normalize and streamline these services.”

In Maine, the 988 hotline has not replaced the pre-existing Maine Crisis Line. Calls, texts and chats to that number, 1-888-568-1112, will also still be answered. The same is true for calls the the previous National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number, 1-800-273-8255. Maine’s mental health crisis call center, operated by the nonprofit Opportunity Alliance, will continue to answer the communications that come in via the Maine Crisis Line or are transferred from the previous national lifeline number, and will now answer calls to the new 988 number as well. Texts and chats to 988 will be answered by the national support center.

“Implementing the 988 line in the State of Maine is another reminder that mental health is equally as important as physical health,” Maine EMS Director Sam Hurley said in the same press release. “Maine EMS continues to work hand-in-hand with colleagues at DHHS and around the state to ensure that all patients receive the right care at the right time, no matter their emergency. As the 988 system continues to evolve, we will see even further alignment with this mission in ensuring that all patients receive the highest quality care from a well-trained expert as safely as possible.”

Just over a month ago, reporting from the Bangor Daily News indicated that staff issues could slow the state’s rollout of the new 988 hotline. More recent reporting from Maine Public said call center staff would be increased in anticipation of higher call volumes. This week, DHHS spokesperson Jackie Farwell clarified to the BDN Editorial Board that the Opportunity Alliance has hired two new staffers and is in the process of hiring three more. This will bring the call center staff total to 30.

This hiring and onboarding apparently can’t come soon enough, given recent call volume via the national lifeline. According to Farwell, DHHS is “pleased that The Opportunity Alliance successfully managed 24 Lifeline calls on Saturday and 28 on Sunday, which is about double the daily average of 14 calls per day.” The new 988 line launched on Saturday.

These numbers and the ongoing process to integrate the new 988 hotline with the existing crisis line system highlight how the imperative of supporting people experiencing mental health struggles doesn’t begin and end with three digits. The new, shorter hotline number and the awareness that should follow it are significant steps forward. But it will take sustained work and resources to ensure these three digits connect people with the help they need.

“Given the magnitude of the mental health crisis, 988 should be an opportunity to overhaul not just the phone number but also what happens after it gets dialed,” health economist Ryan K. McBain and behavioral scientist Stephanie Brooks Holliday, both from the Rand Corporation, said in a recent Los Angeles Times opinion piece republished by the Bangor Daily News. “It will take political will and leadership to reach that goal.”

This sustained will and leadership will be needed in Maine and across the country.

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Opinion Editor Susan Young, Deputy Opinion Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked for the BDN...