Vermont will introduce a three-digit number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July

Vermont will join the rest of the US in adopting 988 as the emergency number for mental health issues and crises. The number is scheduled to become active and accessible on July 16. Photo illustration by Natalie Williams/VTDigger

Vermont will join the rest of the nation in adopting a new three-digit number to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in July, using core funding from the state budget.

All states will be required federally to offer the three-digit number 988 as mental health care by July 16. On Thursday, Gov. Phil Scott signed the H.740 law into law, which provides for the continued allocation of federal funds to support Lifeline’s Vermont staffing and infrastructure.

Terri Lavely, board member and field attorney for the Vermont chapter of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, is helping oversee the 988 deployment. She testified on behalf of the House and Senate Appropriations Committees on behalf of this bill and an earlier bill with which it coincided, p.69.

“This is a huge step forward and it’s been so long in coming,” said Lavely. “(We need to) get people to the services they need and the answers they need, when they need them. It doesn’t always come at 9am when your therapist is in the office. Sometimes it’s 2am when all you’re struggling with is your own thoughts.”

In October 2021, in preparation for the introduction of the three-digit number, Vermont changed the process of entering a full 10-digit number—even for local 802 calls—for all dialed calls.

That’s because Vermont is one of several states that had existing phone numbers that began with 988, said Alison Krompf, deputy commissioner for the Vermont Department of Mental Health.

“Not every federal state had that, but we were one,” said Krompf. “It made everyone get a little notification on their phone saying like ‘starts October 1st,’ and that actually got a lot of interest.”

Another element of Vermont’s 988 launch schedule that not every state will necessarily benefit from is 24/7 service.

The Federal Communications Commission, which adopted 988 as an easy-to-remember nationwide area code in 2020, is requiring all phone service providers to route all 988 calls to the Lifeline, beginning with the number’s sweeping nationwide adoption date of July 16.

All Covered Providers are required by the Federal Communications Commission to implement 10-digit dialing in areas where 988 is used as the first three digits in seven-digit telephone numbers.

“We are preparing for this moment, especially since 2019,” said Krompf.

It was around this time that Krompf began working for the Department of Mental Health, and the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline reached out to the department, as Vermont did not yet have call centers to manage the hotline at the time.

The Department of Mental Health first received a capacity-building grant for these services in 2019 to onboard staff and get the Lifeline project off the ground, and then received a planning grant. By this time it had to find other avenues of funding to maintain staff and infrastructure.

The first grant came from a federal agency called the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration.

As of 2019, Vermont has established two certified call centers that operate through the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — although the lifeline is currently only available by dialing 800-273-8255 or a 10-digit number for each Vermont-based entity.

Vibrant, the Lifeline provider, is forecasting a 30 percent increase in usage of the 988 line, Lavely said.

The two Vermont-based affiliated organizations that receive calls through the national hotline are Northwestern Counseling and Support Services and Northeast Kingdom Human Services. Ten community mental health centers have their own hotlines.

The eight other mental health centers in Vermont that are not certified by the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline continue to provide 24-hour services but operate at night with a pager system, while the affiliated centers have 24-hour service providers are.

Still, Krompf does not anticipate an element of competition in the continued relationship between the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline and existing local organizations because Lifeline does not provide ongoing counseling or other services that these mental health centers provide.

“It should be a referral pipeline,” she said. “The service they provide is not take away. The hope is that it will actually drive more traffic because more people who don’t know about these services will find out about them.”

Vermont Care Partners, the body that oversees Vermont’s 10 designated mental health agencies, plans to devote an upcoming Monday meeting solely to planning the launch of 988, said Joe Halko, director of community relations at Northwestern Counseling and Support Services.

“We are coming off a two-year period in which the system has been somewhat overwhelmed by the increasing number of people using services, and certainly there are now intentions to reinforce that,” he said. “It’s really a rebrand and an expansion of the services that can be offered.”

Another benefit of the National Lifeline is Vermont’s partnership with New Hampshire as a backup during peak call times at Vermont-based call centers, ensuring Vermonters calling in times of emergency or crisis are never received by a busy signal.

Krompf said her department plans to heavily promote the hotline through various forms of outreach, such as newsletters and advertising on social media. She hopes the number will become as widely known as 911.

“Remember when you were a kid and everyone knows 911,” Krompf said. “We also want to make it clear that you don’t have to be suicidal to call a mental health crisis.”

Krompf also stressed the importance of distinguishing between the two emergency numbers, with 911 standing for immediate medical assistance or police action and 988 being intended as a mechanism to prevent serious medical intervention being required.

“As wonderful as 911 is as a service, I’ve spoken to a lot of people who were really, really too scared to call,” she said. “They are concerned whether the response would escalate things in a way that would make things worse.”

Especially in a world hit by Covid-19, these types of mental health support services are critical, Krompf said. With the onset of the pandemic, suicide attempts and the suicide mortality rate increased—although not immediately after the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

The highest rates Vermont has reported in over a decade were recorded in 2021, and projections for 2022 don’t appear to be much better, Krompf said.

Halko said he believes the toll the pandemic has taken on people’s mental health is likely to have long-term effects in the years to come.

Children as young as 10 have used Vermont’s mental health crisis call centers, Lavely said. She hopes that today’s kids will be the generation that really breaks down the stigma that still surrounds mental health.

“If you have a toothache, don’t wait to see the dentist. If you break a bone, don’t wait to go to the emergency room,” Lavely said. “Why would you wait to take care of your sanity?”

Krompf said these services are known for saving lives, and several people have told her they would have attempted suicide without the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.

“The biggest change, from my perspective, that it’s a 988 number, just like a 911, is that it puts mental health on the same playing field as physical health,” she said. “This merits as much as having a 24/7 response available as any other challenge or affliction.”

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