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How the new 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline works in West Michigan

Most calls are directed to a local resource. In Kent County, calls are answered by experts at Network180.

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. — Calling for help during a suicide or mental health crisis just became easier. 

On Saturday, the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline switched from a ten-digit phone number to 9-8-8. 

"Someone in a mental health crisis will be connected with a professional immediately, just like how 911 works," said Andrew Boekestein, the strategic projects manager for Network180.

In Kent County, someone calling the lifeline will be connected with an expert at Network180. The idea is for local calls to be answered by local groups that can help and provide resources right in your area.

"For a lot of the answering centers, they're centralized within the state," said Boekestein, "which comes with certain efficiencies, I think, but you lose that local connectedness to our community. So, when someone calls from Kent County, they'll be connected locally to people who live in the community, who work here, who have been trained in the resources, who know the culture, who probably know the neighborhood the person is calling from."

The people answering the phones are trained in suicide prevention and de-escalation. The phones are manned 24/7, 365 days a week. 

When someone calls, the person answering will first ask them what is going on, and try to get to know them. 

"It could be someone who's feeling a bit off and want some help, or it can be someone in in the midst of a heated suicidal crisis," said Boekestein.

Network180 has been manning the phones for the lifeline for years prior to the 9-8-8 switch. For them, it is not much of a difference. However, Boekestein said it will be a much bigger deal for the callers in crisis. 

Each month, Network180 averages about 256 calls in Kent County. 

Across the state, there were more than 62,000 calls from Michigan to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline in 2021. 

"We know that we've had an increase in opioid overdose deaths," said Dr. Debra Pinals, medical director for behavioral health and forensic programs with MDHHS, "We know there's been increased suicides prior to the pandemic. We know there's been a lot of emotional distress related to the pandemic. So, it's time to destigmatize mental health and really make resources as available as possible."

The hope is the new 9-8-8 number will increase the amount of people calling in for help. 

If all lines at Network180, or another local resource, are busy, a caller should never get a busy signal. There is backup. In the event of overflow, callers will be directed to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline teams. 

However, in Michigan, the goal is to keep Michigan callers connected to Michigan-manned phones.

"We're sort of ahead of others states," said Pinals, "We've got the Michigan Crisis and Access Line, and the state contracted with an entity called Common Ground, which is based in Oakland County. And they're the call center that receives the majority of the calls."

The new number also expands what the lifeline can do, by adding "crisis" to the name, the goal is to have people call before they find themselves on the brink of suicidal thoughts. 

"By having it be a broader crisis line, the idea is that we can intervene sooner give people the resources that they need," said Pinals, "Help them have self calming techniques that they can learn, and really be more available and address the needs of society more."

The former ten-digit number, (800)-273-TALK (8255), is still live and available to callers. 

If you, or someone you know, is in need of help during a mental health crisis, call 9-8-8. 

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