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Six months in, Wisconsin 988 lifeline operator hiring more to meet demand

Wisconsin DHS

In his state of the state address, Governor Evers declared 2023 the ‘Year of Mental Health.’

He wants the next state budget to include $500 million in mental and behavioral investments.

This includes more than $3 million to cover operating costs for the 988 Suicide and Crisis Lifeline Support which launched last summer.

In July 2022, the national 3-digit hotline was launched.

Similar to how people call 911, 988 is now available for people experiencing a mental health emergency.

Before 988, there was a 10-digit line people could call.

For both lines, calls from Wisconsin get directed to the Family Service of Northeast Wisconsin based in Green Bay.

Caroline Crehan Neumann is the DHS Crisis Services Coordinator. She says calls and messages started increasing before the 988-line launch and have only continued to grow.

“It’s not like there was a switch that was turned on in July and all of the sudden we got 3, 4, 5 times the calls. It’s been sort of a gradual increase over the last year or two,” said Crehan Neumann.

Crehan Neumann says they were getting around 4,500 calls a month in the Spring of 2022.

Now, they’re averaging around 6,000 a month.

That also doesn’t include chats or text messages that come through. Those go to national centers.

Crehan Neumann says they’ve had to hire more people to staff the hotline.

They’re currently trying to expand it so people could do the work remotely, but there are a lot of moving parts to make that happen.

“Writing policy and procedure for a remote workforce. Getting supervisors for remote counselors. Purchasing the technology to make sure all of that information is still HIPPA compliant while people are taking calls, chats, and texts from home,” she said. “We’ve definitely had to bring on more staff and we have to bring on a lot more. That’s our number one goal right now.”

Crehan Neuman says about 30% of callers are people expressing suicidal ideation, which can be passive or active.

The majority of calls are from people who are struggling, but not suicidal.

“The gamut runs everywhere from financial stressors to maybe abuse in the home. Our largest category is mental health concerns which is kind of what you’d expect. The second largest category is people reaching out with interpersonal issues like relationships,” said Crehan Neuman.

She was happy to hear Evers declare 2023 the Year of Mental Health saying it’s long overdue for mental health to get its time in the spotlight.

Crehan Neuman believes going through the COVID-19 pandemic has brought up more conversations around mental health since it’s likely you or someone you have experienced an issue stemming from it.

“I think we’re just collectively facing that. It also feels sort of less stigmatized to say that we’re having struggles with mental health or substance use or a crisis because we all went through this pandemic, and we have these weird lasting effects from it,” she said.

If you or someone you know is experiencing a suicidal or mental health crisis, call or text 988.

You can also use the chat function at 988lifeline.org.

You can learn more about how the lifeline operates in Wisconsin on the DHS website.

Katie Thoresen is WXPR's News Director/Vice President.
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