Here’s how the new 988 crisis helpline will work in Massachusetts

NORWOOD, Mass. — Laura Hamilton has a red binder with pages and pages of phone numbers and websites, a collection of all the health care providers and call centers she’s accumulated over the years. That binder is her resource when she’s experiencing a mental health crisis.

“You just need one person to pick up the phone,” Hamilton said.

The 40-year-old Norwood resident said she’s been hospitalized for Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. She’s battled mental health issues since she was a child, and has had trouble navigating Massachusetts’ health care system, which critics describe as complex and cumbersome.

“In the past when I was going through a really hard time, I’ve called over a hundred numbers looking for resources in my community,” Hamilton said.

There is a new helpline coming that could make things a lot easier. The Federal Communications Commission designated 988 as a nationwide suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline. The number goes live on July 16.

“I think 988 will make a tremendous difference in providing an alternative to 911,” said Danna Mauch, president, and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health.

According to the Executive Office of Health and Human Services, there will be five 988 call centers in Massachusetts: Call2Talk, Samaritans of Cape Cod & the Islands, Samaritans of Merrimack Valley, Samaritans, Inc. and Samaritans Southcoast. Only centers that are members of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Network will answer 988 calls, and when the helpline becomes active, anyone who calls with a Massachusetts area code will be routed to a trained counselor.

“The move to 988 will provide a number that is simple and easy to remember, and will hopefully lead to more opportunities to support residents in need of these services,” the EOHHS spokesperson said.

Massachusetts lawmakers Rep. Marjorie Decker and Sen. Julian Cyr filed separate bills to implement 988 in Massachusetts, H.2081, and S.1274. Decker said one of the goals with 988 is to take police out of the equation when someone is in need of mental health treatment.

“They do not need to be the first responder to every mental health crisis and sometimes it’s actually a lot safer if they’re not,” Decker said. “The research does, in fact, affirm that when somebody calls a crisis hotline often that can literally be the lifesaving line.”

Mauch said 988 will make it much easier for people to get help.

“It will replace the suicide hotlines, Mauch said. “Massachusetts has a lot of resources, but when you have a lot of resources it’s harder to navigate the system. This creates a much simpler way into the system.”

Hamilton is looking forward to the day when she can replace all the numbers in her binder with that simple, three-digit helpline.

“I think it will make all the difference in the world,” Hamilton said.

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