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988 will become the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline number in July, but is Pa. ready to make the switch? | FOX43 Finds Out

States are required to roll out the 988 number as the new suicide prevention lifeline phone number in July. FOX43 Finds Out if Pa. is ready to make the switch.

HANOVER, Pa. — If you or someone you know is thinking of suicide, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. In July, you will be able to reach that lifeline by dialing ‘988.’  There are many organizations across Pennsylvania that offer resources and support. To get started, you can find a list of groups in each county on the Prevent Suicide PA website.

Three simple numbers could help save someone's life -- and it's not 911. 

It's 988.

On July 16th, states will be required by federal law to adopt the 988 number that will become the new replace the 10-digit National Suicide Prevention Lifeline. The number is already working in most parts of Pennsylvania, but it's more than just a number that is part of the switch.

It's a focus on mental health services and whether Pennsylvania is ready to see a possible influx of calls. 

Jayne Wildasin is the manager of crisis intervention at TrueNorth Wellness in Hanover. It's one of 13 centers in that state that answers suicide lifeline calls.

The center took 173 calls last year from the lifeline.

Wildasin said that isn't as many as some of the larger call centers in the state, but is still significant for the population size.

"They're talking to people who are considering taking their lives. Some calls last hours," said Wildasin.

Like so many offices around the country, TrueNorth is doing the work with a portion of the intended staff.

Wildasin said, "We have been down significantly, like 50% of our staff, since November/December of last year. So we're handling the same amount of calls that we were with 14 people now handling with 7."

A big reason for that is pay. The average wage for a new employee here is $16.50 to $19 an hour.

"They can go work at Petco or Chewy.com and make $24/hour," said Wildasin. "I'm not paying that, and you have to be passionate about it."

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services knows this is a problem.

Even though the state doesn't employ people who answer the calls, it is responsible for part of the 988 rollout. 

"Ultimately we want to need to make sure that people are getting good quality services and we want them talking to trained individuals who know how to respond to a called in crisis," said Kristen Houser, The Deputy Secretary for the Office of Mental Health and Substance Abuse Services.

Houser said the 988 number switch is really just a small part of the new system. Right now, they say it's a soft launch because they think it will take years really see the impact on both staff and the people calling.

"If we want to build a different system that is better prepared to respond to mental health emergencies, it's not what we have now. we need to build it together," said Houser. 

One part of that is geo-location. Right now, if you live in south central Pennsylvania and call the suicide lifeline but don't have a 717 area code, you're not talking to anyone locally. You're talking to someone who works in the area code your phone number is based. 

Wildasin says that's a problem.

"If you have someone who is very suicidal and they call in and they're from Texas, by the time we find a 911 in Texas near them, sometimes it takes an hour," said Wildason. "And that hour could be the difference between life and death."

Money is a way to fix the problem -- and that's where you come in.

With 988, The Federal Communications Commission will allow states to collect fees from voice providers. It already does that for 911. 

So yes, it could mean another charge on your phone bill. 

The Pennsylvania Department of Human Services and other agencies are considering that option in the future, but we're not there yet.

Right now, crisis workers just want to make sure when someone in crisis calls, someone else is there to answer the line.

"The need is always going to be there," said Wildasin. 

If you have a story you want Jackie De Tore to look into, FOX43 wants to find out. Send her a message on Facebook or send an email to FOX43FindsOut@FOX43.com.

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