mental health

988: Hiring Underway in Illinois to Staff National Mental Health Hotline Launching Next Month

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The idea behind the 988 mental health lifeline is simple.

“It shouldn’t be so hard to find mental health support. We've got to make it easier for people,” said Rachel Bhagwat, director of policy for National Alliance on Mental Illness Chicago, explaining the concept behind the three-digit code.

As universal as it is to dial 911 in an emergency, starting July 16, anyone experiencing a mental health crisis nationwide will be able to dial 988 to get direct access to a trained counselor within the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network.

"When 988 rolls out on July 16, people will be able to call, text or chat 988 and on the other end of the line would be someone who is a trained mental health professional, that could be a paid staff person or a volunteer,” Bhagwat said.

Someone calling from DuPage County, for example, would be linked to a Crisis Center operated by the DuPage County Health Department, staffed with trained counselors.

Last year, the DuPage County Health Department’s Behavioral Health Crisis System handled 44,962 calls, up from 42,856 in 2020 and 34,722 calls in 2019.

“We're already one of the busiest call centers in the state and, as designed, this is going to drive more calls to us,” said Karen Ayala, executive director of the DuPage County Health Department.

That’s why the health department is looking to hire more counselors to prepare for the 988 rollout.

“We know it's best when it is people who are not only trained, but very knowledgeable with what the local resources are. That's the best solution in addressing these crisis calls,” Ayala said.

In 2020, bipartisan legislation in Congress mandated the launch of the three-digit number to reach trained counselors who belong to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline network, but left financial support for staffing, phone lines, computer systems and other infrastructure up to the states.

Some mental health professionals worry states will not be ready to handle the anticipated flood of calls.

Most states haven't allocated money for the service, with only Colorado, Nevada, Virginia and Washington enacting comprehensive funding plans. According to a Rand Corp. report published last month, more than half of public health officials charged with launching the 988 line said they felt unprepared and without necessary financing for staffing or infrastructure to handle the rollout. 

The DuPage County Crisis Center is one of six Lifeline Crisis Centers (LCC’s) in Illinois. The latest data shows Illinois ranked last when it comes to an in-state response, with only 19% of mental crisis calls from Illinoisans being answered by someone in state.

“Illinois is a big state. We have a lot of people living here. If we really want people to be connected to local resources, we’re going to need more than six centers,” Bhagwat said.

Bhagwat said that the Path Crisis Center in Bloomington has been designated a statewide backup center for 988 calls.

“That call center, I know, they have a really small team and they are hiring more than 100 positions in these upcoming months looking toward the roll out,” Bhagwat said.

Counselors in DuPage County do need to meet specific educational criteria. For more information and to apply, click here -- https://www.governmentjobs.com/careers/dupagehealth?page=2

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