A Volunteers of America Western Washington crisis counselor talks with somebody on the phone Thursday, in at the VOA Behavioral Health Crisis Call Center in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

A Volunteers of America Western Washington crisis counselor talks with somebody on the phone Thursday, in at the VOA Behavioral Health Crisis Call Center in Everett. (Ryan Berry / The Herald)

‘One call for all’: 988 mental health hotline quadruples Everett staff

Calls to the new Everett center have jumped 47% since the three-digit number rolled out. Gov. Inslee toured the facility Thursday.

EVERETT — A new three-digit number is making it easier for Washingtonians to receive mental health support in a crisis, including through an Everett call center.

The national 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline went live July 16, simplifying the previous 1-800-273-TALK contact for 24/7 crisis support. Now people can call, text or chat 988 to get connected with a trained crisis worker who provides free, confidential emotional support services any time of day.

Volunteers of America Western Washington’s Behavioral Health Crisis Call Center in Everett acts as one of three 988 call centers in Washington. It fields calls from 32 of 39 counties in the state.

Gov. Jay Inslee and federal officials toured the Everett call center Thursday, touting it as one example of how Washington is “leading the nation” in mental health care.

“988 is great because it’s a one call for all,” Inslee said at a press conference outside the call center. “This means that no one is alone in the state of Washington. … Everyone has a lifeline when they need it.”

Ingrid Ulrey, a regional director for the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, said she attended the tour to “affirm from the perspective of Secretary Xavier Becerra” that Washington is a leader in mental health care. She said it is “phenomenal” that a state passes laws to fund improved behavioral health crisis response.

Washington added 988 to its existing “network” of crisis call centers, as part of a bill lawmakers passed in April, the first change in a multi-year plan.

Other updates include “developing technology that allows a rapid hand-off of services,” Inslee said. That means making it easier for crisis counselors to connect callers with next-day doctor’s appointments, as well as strengthening mobile crisis teams that can respond in-person to people who need help beyond what the call line can provide.

“We do have those teams now, but they don’t always have the funding or staff or resources to respond in a quick time,” said Jacy Wade, a follow-up peer support specialist with Volunteers of America.

Changes prompted by the bill will be funded by the new 988 tax on cellular and internet phone service. The tax is 24 cents per line per month through the end of this year, then increases to 40 cents per line per month beginning in January 2023.

The state also plans to bolster culturally competent services for Indigenous people in the state. That work is already underway with Volunteers of America, which launched the “Native and Strong Lifeline” staffed by Indigenous crisis counselors.

“We know there’s still a lot of work to be done to create better outcomes for our community when they experience a crisis,” said Levi Van Dyke, senior director of the Everett center.

In preparation for the new call center, Van Dyke quadrupled his staff, and there are now 83 crisis counselors answering 988 calls.

As expected, calls to the Everett center have jumped 47% to about 150 per day, in the 12 days since the new number rolled out, said Maca Ferguson, spokesperson for Volunteers of America Western Washington. Compared to the same time last year, calls are up 66%.

Many callers share that they’re using the support system now because 988 is easier to remember and dial than the old number.

“Anecdotally, I’ve listened to calls where people said, ‘I wouldn’t have called if there wasn’t this number,’” said Courtney Colwell, a 988 program manager with Volunteers of America.

The staffing boost decreased wait times for people who seek help. Most people wait about seven seconds before getting connected to a worker, said Andrea Rhinus, 988 chat and text coordinator.

Once connected, the crisis counselor listens to the person’s story to understand what the problem is and how best to help. The workers talk through a situation, offer ideas for a coping mechanism and provide referrals for future mental health care. The counselors guide people through their mental health crises. They don’t tell callers exactly what to do.

“We are the navigators, but they control the boat,” said Michael Lane, a crisis shift manager.

Lane said he especially enjoys learning about each caller’s personality. In suggesting coping mechanisms, he hears about hobbies and interests. He empowers them to embrace what makes them special.

Employees emphasized that 988 is not linked to law enforcement. Fewer than 2% of calls to the number involve local emergency services. For those that do, more than half happen with the caller’s consent.

“This lifeline is a way for someone in crisis to get counselors, to get immediate help right there,” said Umair Shah, the state secretary of health. “It’s not about law enforcement. … It’s trained mental health counselors that will be answering the phone … every single time.”

Just knowing they helped someone through a difficult situation keeps the staff motivated.

“For me,” Jacy Wade said, “I feel like a lot of people are grateful at the end of the call … I know I was there for them in that moment.”

Mallory Gruben is a Report for America corps member who writes about education for The Daily Herald.

Mallory Gruben: 425-339-3035; mallory.gruben@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @MalloryGruben.

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