Is Georgia ready for the 988 mental health crisis hotline?

In 2021, Georgia’s crisis hotline abonnement rate was 25%, among the worst in the country.
Published: Mar. 31, 2022 at 5:18 PM EDT
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ATLANTA, Ga. (CBS46) - As the rollout of a new, easier number for the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline approaches, is Georgia ready?

Like 911 for emergencies, 988 will soon be the new three-digit dialing code that will route callers to Lifeline. Judy Fitzgerald, the commissioner of Georgia’s Behavioral Health and Developmental Disabilities (DBHDD), believes 988 will be transformative for crisis services across the country.

“This is just the beginning of an era,” Fitzgerald said. “And individual in crisis should have the easiest way to access help.”

In Georgia, calls to the Lifeline are directed to the Georgia Crisis and Access Line (GCAL). Last year, GCAL received 275,000 calls, chats, and texts, a 24% increase attributed to stresses brought on by the pandemic. Roughly, one-fifth of those calls were dialed by Georgia phone numbers to the Lifeline.

“What we saw was an increase in reports of anxiety, depression, thoughts of self-harm,” Fitzgerald explained. “Things that are really concerning and substance abuse.”

Data collected by the New York Times shows Georgia is already struggling to answer crisis calls. In the last quarter of 2021, Georgia’s crisis hotline abonnement rate was 25%, among the worst in the country.

“Let me assure you and everyone else of this, one abandoned call is one too many,” Fitzgerald. “On the end of every line is a Georgia who is in need.”

Fitzgerald says federal and state dollars are already at work to bolster mental health services. Improving call centers’ infrastructure will be key to the success of 988.

“I think it’s fair to call this ‘a heavy lift’ and to acknowledge, alongside this unprecedented demand that we’re seeing, these calls and this increase concern in dialogue about behavioral health, we’re also facing an unprecedent work shortage,” Fitzgerald said.

Melanie Dallas is the CEO of Highland Rivers Behavioral Health. She believes the shift to 988 will likely mean more calls to their crisis center, but she’s confident the state is ready for the switch.

“There’s always concern,” Dallas said. “I think in partnership with our legislators, in partnership with the behavioral health, we’ll be able to do a good job, but there has to be a partnership.”

In the past month, GCAL’s average response time was less than 60 seconds the abandonment rate was 10 percent, according to DBHDD. Fitzgerald said the improvement comes as call volume continues to rise.

“I’d say the readiness continues and it’s going to continue for years,” she added. “We’ll need to continue to build, month over month, year over year.”

988 will launch on July 16.

The current Lifeline phone number (1-800-273-8255) will always remain available to people in emotional distress or suicidal crisis, even after 988 is launched nationally.

The Lifeline’s network of over 180 crisis centers has been in operation since 2005, and has been proven to be effective. It’s the counselors at these local crisis centers who answer the contacts the Lifeline receives every day. Numerous studies have shown that callers feel less suicidal, less depressed, less overwhelmed and more hopeful after speaking with a Lifeline counselor.

For ways to support your local Lifeline network crisis center, visit our Crisis Centers page here.

To learn about the impact of the Lifeline, visit our new By the Numbers page.

To learn about what happens when you call, text, or chat with the Lifeline, click here.

To learn more about the history of 988, visit here.