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Hundreds Of Counselors Train For Launch Of 988, New Health Crisis Hotline

A billboard with a green background and the illutration of a mustachioed man reads: MENTAL HEALTH MATTERS 800-854-771
A billboard in Long Beach promotes L.A. County's mental health services.
(Megan Garvey
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Mental health nonprofits across the state have been training hundreds of counselors in anticipation of a new national number that launches this month for people who are having mental health crises.

The Federal Communications Commission picked the number 988, which launches July 16, to automatically feed into the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline — 1-800-273-TALK, a 10-digit number that can be hard to remember.

Shari Sinwelski, vice president of crisis care for Didi Hirsch Mental Health Services, which collaborates with nonprofits in suicide prevention, said that her team is expecting two to three-fold the volume of calls, chats and texts they already get because of the development.

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Her organization is aiming to have at least 400 trained counselors ready for the influx.

“Hopefully down the road it will be something that’s as commonplace for somebody to call 988 if they’re having a mental health crisis as it would be for someone to call 911 if they’re having a heart attack,” Sinwelski said.

There have been concerns about whether current crisis response infrastructure overall will be able to meet demand, especially if 988 does eventually sync with emergency dispatches.

The L.A. County Board of Supervisors voted last fall to roughly double the number of Department of Mental Health Psychiatric Mobile Response teams. The PMRTs are an alternative to a law enforcement response. But people who call these teams can often wait several hours or even a whole day before they hear back.

The Biden administration announced in December that it would dedicate $284 million to help with these efforts, and California lawmakers asked U.S. Congress for much more in March.

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