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The new 988 suicide prevention hotline will connect Kansans to help near them

 Gov. Laura Kelly signed a ceremonial bill in Wichita on Monday. She wants more Kansans to know about 988.
David Condos
Kansas News Service
Gov. Laura Kelly signed a ceremonial bill in Wichita on Monday. She wants more Kansans to know about 988.

Millions are poured into mental health services to support 988. Some haven’t seen this much investment in a while.

TOPEKA, Kansas — Think of the new 988 not just as an easier-to-remember suicide hotline.

The number that goes live in Kansas on Saturday also comes with an infusion of federal tax dollars aimed at creating a more powerful and nimble lifeline to families caught in a mental health crisis.

“It really spurred the initial progress to move forward with that,” said Sherrie Vaughn, the executive director of the Kansas branch of the National Alliance on Mental Illness. “If you would have asked me four years ago, can we get there? I may have been hesitant to say yes.”

The new hotline was designed to steer people to nearby help. That’s a departure from the existing system that merely connected people to therapists and social workers scattered across the country.

With 988, someone calling from Kansas gets a direct line to a professional in Kansas. For example, a call-taker in Kansas might have a connection to someone at a community health center and could directly connect someone to treatment.

“The first step is to reach out and ask for help,” Vaughn said.

That triggers a series of steps to find counseling, medications or even a hospital bed — depending on the severity and nature of the crisis.

“(It’s) not just that one call, click, it's over,” Vaughn said.

An easier-to-call number is expected to increase the number of people seeking help. Matt Atteberry, executive director of the Labette Center for Mental Health Services Inc., said that means it’ll cost more to respond to a larger caseload. The Kansas Legislature approved $10 million to support 988.

He said community mental health centers offer services that 988 funding will bring, like a crisis response team, but centers have wanted to expand services. That might not have been possible without the federal subsidies tied to 988.

“I don't imagine there's any mental health center that thinks … there’s not a need for additional (services),” Atteberry said. “Anything that makes it more likely we can provide the care that we’re here to do.”

Gov. Laura Kelly is making the rounds to promote 988. On Monday, she signed ceremonial legislation in Wichita and said the suicide mortailty rate in Kansas is higher than the national average.

“This tool comes at a particularly important time. The truth is, we’re facing a mental health crisis here in the United States,” Kelly said. “Just as every American knows to call 911 in times of emergency, every American and every Kansan will soon know to call 988 when they or a loved one is facing a mental health or substance abuse crisis.”

The 988 service is available by call or text and in multiple languages around the clock.

Blaise Mesa reports on criminal justice and social services for the Kansas News Service in Topeka. You can follow him on Twitter @Blaise_Mesa or email him at blaise@kcur.org.

The Kansas News Service is a collaboration of KCUR, Kansas Public Radio, KMUW and High Plains Public Radio focused on health, the social determinants of health and their connection to public policy. 

Kansas News Service stories and photos may be republished by news media at no cost with proper attribution and a link to ksnewsservice.org.

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Blaise Mesa