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Officials: Indiana ready for new suicide prevention hotline number

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — State health officials on Thursday said the new suicide prevention number is just one part of expanded mental health services in Indiana.

Saturday is the deadline for all states and phone carriers to launch the new 988 hotline. The number builds on the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline’s existing infrastructure.

Dr. Chris Drapeau, the state Division of Mental Health’s executive director of prevention, suicide prevention and crisis response, said Indiana already has three Lifeline call centers in Gary, Muncie, and Lafayette. Two more in Indianapolis and Fort Wayne are adding staff and ready to begin taking calls, one of which already manages the state’s Be Well Crisis Helpline.

Answering calls is personal for Morgan Chafin. She went through a mental health crisis a few years ago and had suicidal thoughts, though she didn’t use the lifeline. Now a psychology major at Ball State, she took a job in November as a call handler with A Better Way in Muncie, one of the state’s lifeline call centers. She said she’s excited for the new number.

“I know that when I was in that position, just someone listening and being able to understand what I was going through would have helped a ton,” Chafin said. “And so it’s super rewarding knowing that I’m that listening ear for someone.”

Mercedes Carr, A Better Way’s primary prevention coordinator, said her organization has been preparing for the 988 rollout since the federal law that created it was signed two years ago. She said recruiting call handlers has been pretty easy, even for overnight and weekend shifts.

“You have people who are really seeing the need for suicide awareness and suicide prevention, and so there have been more people who have been interested in those types of positions,” she said.

Nationwide, mental health advocacy groups have raised concerns that call centers might not be able to handle the increased call volume that might accompany the new number. Drapeau said he doesn’t expect that to happen in Indiana. He said Indiana’s in-state lifeline answer rate rose from 50 to 70 percent of calls over the past two years despite losing two lifeline call centers during the same period. He said national overflow centers are being set up to supplement state call centers, but excess out-of-state phone traffic won’t be rerouted into Indiana. Drapeau said to expect to get routed to an out-of-state call center if you have a phone with an out-of-state area code as the 988 system doesn’t yet have geolocating capability.

Officials said the Lifeline’s old number, 1-800-273-8255, will still work. Indiana also has its 211 call system, which includes the Be Well Helpline, available at option 3. Drapeau said call handlers will be able to transfer callers to a 988 center if it becomes apparent the caller is experiencing a mental health crisis.

No transfer capability currently exists between the 988 system and the state’s 911 dispatch centers, which come into play for life-threatening emergencies. Drapeau said officials are investigating ways to integrate the two systems and are awaiting federal guidance.

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