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New 988 line launching to boost access to mental health services

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A new three-digit suicide prevention and addiction hotline will launch Saturday in a bid to increase the accessibility of mental health services amid a surge in need caused by the pandemic.

Residents everywhere will be able to dial 988 to reach the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, which previously was available only through a 10-digit 800 number. Those seeking aid can call, text, or chat the number, which will be accessible 24 hours each day.

“We all know that mental health is finally starting to get the attention that it needed before, and that is because of the hard work of people from the federal level to the community level. It doesn’t just happen,” Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin (D-Middlesex) said at an event in Perth Amboy on Friday.

Calls to the nationwide hotline are answered by one of more than 200 local call centers linked to a caller’s area code. In most cases, local centers are best positioned to refer callers to mental health services in their communities and are funded and staffed by local and state authorities.

New Jersey lawmakers set aside $12.8 million to stand up the 988 system in the $50.6 billion budget Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last month, along with $432 million in federal funds. The federal government has already disbursed $135 million of that money to states, with another $147 million directed to the lifeline itself.

The budget also includes $16 million for mobile crisis response to aid individuals having mental health issues that aren’t severe enough to require hospitalization. New Jersey already offers such services at hospitals, but the mobile centers will fill an unmet need and could do so without involving police.

“More than half of the individuals who are seen in screening centers or by crisis response teams do not require hospitalization, which sometimes means individuals go home without the new services or supports,” Human Services Commissioner Sarah Adelman said Friday.

Federal and state officials stressed the 988 system is distinct from existing 911 systems.

The use of area codes could connect some callers to far-away call centers. A Floridian with a 609 area code, for example, would reach a call center in the northeast. On a Thursday press call, officials from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services said the agency is still exploring implementing geolocation.

The system’s launch on Saturday is only the first step in its implementation, Coughlin said.

A pandemic surge

Mental wellness plummeted during the long months of isolation many faced early in the pandemic and dropped further under added stresses COVID introduced in later months as businesses flagged amid shutdowns and the virus became a political football. 

Pediatric visits for behavioral health issues at Hackensack Meridian Health, one of the state’s largest hospital systems, has nearly doubled since the start of the pandemic, rising by 90%, Hackensack Meridian Health CEO Robert Garrett said.

“So many patients in mental health crisis access our emergency departments, and they have to compete with patients who just had a stroke or a heart attack or were involved in a motor vehicle accident, and oftentimes they get kind of lost in the shuffle,” Garrett said.

He added Hackensack Meridian will add 40 beds to its in-patient psychiatric treatment center.

Adults haven’t escaped the malaise. A Kaiser Family Foundation poll conducted in March found 28% of New Jersey adults reported symptoms of anxiety or depression in the prior seven days, compared to just 11% who reported such symptoms in a pre-pandemic survey the organization conducted in 2019.

“There’s not a family, I think, in New Jersey who has not experienced having to deal with a family member, a neighbor, or just a friend who has been touched by mental illness and needs mental health service delivery,” Lt. Governor Sheila Oliver said.

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