211 adds dialing code 988 for help in crisis

A message from Libby Donoghue, 211 Brevard executive director:

As of Saturday (July 16), nationwide, people in mental health crisis can reach out for help via an easy-to-remember, three-digit dialing code, 988, that takes the place of the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number.

That may sound familiar because residents of the Space Coast have had access to crisis and suicide intervention for more than two decades via 211, a dialing code adopted locally in 2001 by 211 Brevard immediately after its federal approval.

211 Brevard, approaching its 60th anniversary in local mental health advocacy next year, has been a longtime partner of the national hotline, answering calls 24/7 from 1-800-273-TALK as well as to 211.

Nothing changes for 211 callers as we’ll continue to offer crisis intervention, as well information and referral to human services.

And we’re excited about 988, which will offer yet another option for anyone experiencing a mental health crisis – thoughts of suicide, challenges with substance abuse or any other emotional distress – to reach trained and compassionate counselors in the network of more than 200 crisis centers across the country.

But we’re anxious, too: The last thing we want is for calls for help to go unanswered.

This new dialing code has come about quickly with congressional approval less than two years ago and many unresolved issues around funding and hiring to manage a projected increase of between 400% and 800% in Lifeline calls routed to 211 Brevard.

With an annual base of about 2,300 Lifeline calls locally, that equates to more than 21,000 calls.

211 Brevard received some start-up funding for 988 response from the state through Central Florida Cares Health System, an ongoing funder of local mental health and substance abuse services.

About $11 million more in government funding – only about a quarter of the estimate needed for successful operations — has been earmarked for the 12 Florida crisis centers in the Lifeline network, but that money has yet to be released to centers, delaying our ability to hire and train staff – a process that takes six to eight weeks – in advance of the launch.

Add to that the increases in call volume overall to 211 since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and the challenges to hiring any staff in today’s tight labor market.

Then there is the issue of what happens after the call, if additional support or action is needed either voluntarily by the caller or involuntarily through 911 and law enforcement.

Increased demand is guaranteed to further strain limited mobile crisis response teams and the recently decreased number of beds in crisis stabilization units.

And since COVID-19, nonprofit and other counseling alternatives are, in some cases, experiencing overwhelming demand and also dealing with staffing challenges.

211 Brevard will do the best we can, as will Florida’s and the nation’s other crisis centers and other responders to mental health crises.

We will – as always — make answering crisis calls a priority, and if we can’t answer quickly, the 988 call will be routed to a backup center.

We will continue to promote resources and education on risk factors and warning signs of suicide, available online from multiple sources, and our own automated, supportive text messages (see below).

In 2020, the U.S. had one death by suicide about every 11 minutes, and for people ages 10-34, suicide is the leading cause of death.

In that year in Brevard, 117 people died by suicide with 22 aged 10-34 and 21 aged 75 or older. A total of 45 suicide deaths were of people in the age group 55-74.

It goes without saying that one death by suicide is one too many, so we need your help:

  • Educate yourself about suicide prevention. Go online to samhsa.gov/suicide or suicidepreventionlifeline.org. Text “BeThe1To” to 898211 (TXT211) and choose options about risk factors and warning signs.
  • Put what you learn into practice if you suspect someone may be having thoughts of suicide or experiencing emotional crisis.

At 211 Brevard, we’re committed to saving lives, and we ask you to partner with us while we navigate this new option of 988 and for the future: You can “be the one to” prevent a suicide.

Libby Donoghue has been executive director for more than 35 years of the private, nonprofit 211 Brevard. The agency traces its history to 1963 as a partner of the Mental Health Association and began offering telephone crisis intervention in 1968.