Concern staffing shortage could hinder launch of new suicide hotline 988

BOSTON, Mass. — 988, the new suicide prevention and mental health crisis hotline, launches nationwide July 16, but there is concern among mental health advocates that Massachusetts call centers may not be able to handle a high influx of calls.

“I share concerns that people will make a call for help and not be able to get a timely response,” said Danna Mauch, President and CEO of the Massachusetts Association for Mental Health. “We honestly don’t know what the level of demand is going to be.”

Mauch and other advocacy groups worry the healthcare industry’s “Great Resignation” could leave 988 call centers understaffed and unequipped to handle a large volume of calls for help.

“I think many of the states including Massachusetts are reporting they haven’t been able to fill all the positions they’ve been trying to recruit for,” Mauch said.

The Executive Office of Health and Human Services (EOHHS) said 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.

“There is no need for concern…The crisis centers are doing their best to ramp up and will do their very best to be there for the individuals who are calling,” said Eileen Davis, director of Call2Talk.

An EOHHS spokesperson said each call center is increasing the number of call takers as they transition “from a fully volunteer based model to a hybrid volunteer and staff response system.”

“The Administration is closely monitoring staffing levels at each center and providing support to accelerate hiring efforts such as increasing funding for staffing and promoting available job postings,” the spokesperson said in an email to Boston 25.

Kiva Centers’ COO Vesper Moore said he’s also concerned staffing shortages will impact the response time for people in crisis.

“[I’m] definitely concerned with the system being able to handle the influx of calls,” Moore said. “We’ve already faced a Great Resignation when it comes to behavioral health.”

The Baker Administration said more than $14 million in federal and state funding has gone towards making sure 988′s launch goes as smoothly as possible. Mauch is cautiously optimistic.

“We have a workforce crisis in the healthcare field and I think this service like any other service is impacted by it,” Mauch said.

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