Alabama will join the rest of the nation on July 16 in integrating a three-digit phone number to help citizens address all mental health, substance abuse and suicide crises.

Calling 988 allows anyone in crisis to speak with a crisis counselor who can determine the proper method of care moving forward.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Alabama had 793 deaths by suicide and 1,029 deaths by drug overdose in 2020.

According to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA), 41% of adults in the state sought medical treatment for a mental health issue between 2017 and 2019.

The 988 number will route callers to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline centers in each state, which in the past required dialing a 10-digit number that many found to be too long for the rapid response needed to address crisis situations.

The Alabama Department of Mental Health (ADMH) has been working with a special 988 state commission to integrate Alabama into the program.

According to Malissa Valdes, Public Information Officer with ADMH, the governor convened the commission to facilitate Alabama’s entrance into the 988 system.

“Some of the research we’ve been given [from the 988 commission] is that 80% of the calls from the national prevention lifeline are resolved with just the call, with just a connection between the person and the crisis counselor,” Valdes said. “They are, thankfully, given enough information and support that they are able to get off that call and be at a stable point. The other 20% may need something else. They may need someone else to come to them.”

Callers can be those suffering an extreme mental health crisis or a crisis involving substance abuse. The call can be transferred to a counselor who can help the person through the situation, direct them to a crisis center or dispatch appropriate persons to the scene through a mobile crisis center. 

In 2020, Congress designated the new 988 dialing code to operate through the existing national line, which will go live on July 16.

“988 will save lives,” Valdes said. “This [is an] easy-to-remember number. It seems so simple, but it’s really hard to remember a 10-digit number. So we feel like this will really save lives; that’s the most important thing.”

Alabama is currently building out a fleet of mobile crisis units to bring needed care to a person in crisis. So far, 13 mobile units have been funded, and around half are fully functioning, according to Valdes. She also stated that the mobile units would be more suited for reaching those in more rural areas of the state.

“There are people going out - going into people’s homes, and caring for them in their homes,” Valdes said. “That’s such a phenomenal thing to think about, that somebody can come to you. That kind of thing is going to save a bunch of lives.”

Alabama lawmakers have been attempting to address mental health in the state for some time now. The state has authorized six mental health crisis centers, three of which are currently operational. The centers are intended to treat those needing mental health treatment while relieving the load placed on emergency rooms and urgent care centers.

“Over the years, there has been an increase in persons who have ended up in jail or an emergency room while having a mental health crisis, and that may not be the place for them,” Valdes said. “They need to be seen in the right kind of places with the right care, by the right types of specialists when they need help for a mental health crisis, and that includes a substance abuse crisis.”

Although 988 may direct the caller to an Alabama crisis center, these centers offer walk-in treatments as well. The crisis centers are available for anyone to receive observation and treatment depending on individual needs.

The centers are staffed with medical professionals who can evaluate visitors and determine the appropriate care. Care at a crisis center can be a simple conversation to stabilize the individual or a longer-term option such as outpatient therapy.

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